by Lee | Filed under Fiction
It’s been a while since I posted anything. So here’s a short story I originally published way back in ’08 in the now-defunct but once very relevant (until Harper Govt cut its funding down to zilch) Vancouver Review. It’s set in 2000, during the leaky condo crisis. I rented a place in a leaky condo, lived under tarps for about nine months while carpenters cursed at each other on the scaffolding outside my windows. My landlord — at another place — called her son ‘the handicap’ — he was microcephalic and he used to come over to shovel gravel around.
The handicap on the first floor was famous online before he died of the black mold. Really, it was the nineteen-nineties that killed him, the stucco pioneers who developed all Vancouver’s condominiums that decade used blueprints meant for the San Fernando Valley where the annual rainfall is one blue drop. In Vancouver it rains unquenchingly for months on end, pours interrupted by the occasional deluge and chronic fog spells. Many of the city’s suburbs are built precariously over swamps.
Rain damage to my condo was so severe by the year 2001 that the handicap on the ground floor lived inside a veritable mushroom. The condo was on a slope, and the handicap’s condo was at the bottom. He lived inside this fungus with his widowed mother.
He hardly left the suite. Even while the black mold was turning his air to poison. He was born with a condition, his mother reminded other tenants, he doesn’t mix with others. When she sold her serger on eBay and I volunteered to carry it out to the buyer’s halfton Honda, I got a look at how bad their suite was. The walls were so soaked they’d returned to their original form, mud. As the rain leaked in from every direction, all that kept the whole place from collapsing was the sturdy fungus that had grown itself a wholly-enveloping mycelium inside the walls of their condominium suite. The black mold made the walls look as if someone spilled pepper across them and your hand got clammy if you wiped it over the surface. Big round coppery stains speckled the waterlogged ceiling. The ceiling sagged over the mother and her handicap like an old mattress over their heads, with a chandelier screwed into it. And a huge greasy stain around the chandelier, and water dripping off the cut glass teardrops into buckets set up on the dining room table next to the mother’s manual sewing machine and the handicap’s stack of operas.
I remember the handicap died a few days after they found Saddam inside his hidey hole because for a week their stories were paired on the local evening news, the handicap’s story ran first, notably. I think the horror and the despair and confusion of so much loss was too much for the handicap. I don’t mean Saddam. I mean the condo, his mother; his mother called him that. Where’s the handicap? Have you seen the handicap? she asked if she caught you in the hallway with your groceries. She’d be standing there as if she was just picking up an envelope that had dropped from her hand. There was never any envelope, and she never stood back up, she stayed stooped that way. Even in this vulture stance, she was a metre and a half tall. On top of that, her hair was a giant smoky and dusty frizz like an urban detonation, and that’s all you saw of her face, except every once in a while her red nose. Usually you could hear her squawk before you saw her and you could avoid her.
I told the handicap to get some exercise, she crowed. Her voice was always so loud, so easily offended. I told him to go sweep, get some exercise, but he’s not there. Have you seen my handicap? She usually demanded her handicap go sweep at least once or twice a week. Cyclones of urban grit always scraped up everything in this narrow canyon between our condo and the one next to us. Once or twice a week the handicap spent the better part of his day pushing a broom down the sidewalks out front of our condo. And you inevitably heard opera bouncing up the glass sheath of the building, rising from the lane where he swept trash into piles, bagged, and dumped it. He swept two strokes, stood up, wiped his forehead, singing meanwhile, then two more strokes of the broom. Everyone in our condo and the ones around us knew him a little because you inevitably heard him singing opera and wanted to know the source of such a voice.
A noontime newsanchor on a local affiliate lived in 510. Blond and full-figured, pebbly skin, you’d recognize her if you ever saw her. I once invited the newsanchor back to my suite for coffee, and she agreed, but in the elevator I made light of her celebrity, thinking it would make me seem less superficial to her if I was able to see past the image. I said that she was better known for her picture on the back of a bus because no one watches the lunch-hour news but shut-ins. I realized my mistake instantly, that I’d ruffled her feminine ego, and she suddenly feigned exhaustion from a long day at her career and slipped out on the third floor when the mother stepped in. Have you seen the handicap? she screamed at me from underneath her hair, pushing the G-button. I didn’t hear what else she said, I kept thinking how I could have said anything else to the newsanchor and she would have fallen for me, instead of, as I’d watch progress, the strata president.
Before they caught Saddam, before even 9/11, early in the summer of 2001, the strata council met in the rec room and the president tabled the issue of the cost of a complete recladding of our condo. The president of our strata was a reluctant leader, a young ambitious lawyer with a shaved head and a pair of dark-rimmed glasses that he claimed were designed by a local architect. Although it helped ease his finger into the newsanchor, he didn’t otherwise push hard in his responsibility as strata council president. Frankly, no one wanted to be strata council president. His background in law made him an obvious choice for wicker man. What do I mean by recladding? our strata president said without concealing his despair. For the last time he wanted to reiterate and emphasize what was involved in recladding before we voted to begin construction. He read aloud from his notes: Building envelope failures are the direct result of poor and inappropriate design and shoddy workmanship. And then some, said the handicap’s mother. Yes, on this subject our president got no argument. He was leading us down a delicate path of consensus. We understood our options were gone. We understood from how our president laid out the predicament before us that we had no choice but to vote to begin construction. No matter what the cost. He said that recladding meant anything from four to fourteen months of living behind scaffolding, blue tarps, construction workers in your face from seven am to four pm all week, and at least a few days work on the interior of each of the suites. And especially if, as in the case of the mother and her handicap, the mold had damaged the interior, then work on the suite could take as long as a month.
The mother slowly coughed something into a handkerchief and finally let out a weary sigh. Of all the people in the building, the mother and the handicap were the most conspicuous personification of our collective conscience, imploring us with their slow-death infirmities to do the right thing and begin to pay for the wholesale repairs needed to save our homes from rotting.
At this point the strata president reminded us—more out of paranoid due diligence than anything—that we had voted unanimously at a previous meeting for the cost to be divided equally among all suites regardless of damage, then he quickly announced the per suite quote as fifty thousand. Fifty thousand. The handicap’s mother gasped so deeply I could size the tumours in her blackened throat. Flapping her hands in front of her pale neck, she fainted, slumped off her chair and slowly fell on to the rotted, stain-resistant carpet. In the panic that ensued, the whole strata council leapt from their plastic seats to aid her, and the handicap exploded in a virtuoso performance of the overture to Verdi’s La Traviata. His mother lay face-first on the wall-to-wall. No one knew if she was dead or being dramatic. Her handicap’s voice rang out in the rec room. The overture never sounded so mournful or so alive as when I heard it that day. Pavarotti himself could not have quaked our hearts so deeply. Alagna was a mimic of true emotion when compared with the soaring desperation that I heard in the handicap’s voluble tenor that afternoon at the strata council meeting. It was as if the ghost of Caruso haunted the handicap’s bent flesh, his immortal spirit’s prison, opera’s greatest, buried alive inside a terminally-ill adolescent, this legendary voice coming from a dying gimp.
We were wowed. Most of us had heard the handicap sing before. I knew of at least one tenant in the building who had a popular video on his freelance graphic design website featuring the handicap in the alley sweeping and singing Verdi; it helped him attract traffic to his site. But this was the first time the newsanchor ever heard him sing and she was overwhelmed. On her thick knees sobbing. Wailing. Her life was coming to an end, her perception of news was being shattered. Her tears left very thick mascara trails down her face as the saltwater carved through the TV foundation on her cheeks. She looked beautiful, and for the first time I saw all the strength she had, the human strength for true empathy that made her a presence on television and in an elevator, and gave her the power to change the world. Her will to live. I used to think she was just hanging off the teleprompter, but no. She could strip away her ego and dive naked into a living moment. I could not. I stood there as flat as backdrop, witness to despair and terror thundering around me. She kneeled at the handicap’s side with her hands in his lap, sobbing as silently as she could while his voice plowed over us.
The president stood holding the three-inch binder that kept our strata council minutes and fanning it over the mother’s face while we waited for paramedics. He, too, strata council president, cried and cried, and no one said a word because the handicap sang so beautifully, in a state of complete hypnosis from the anxiety of the situation, which he clearly found unbearable, and the only way he could express his sorrow and fear was through Verdi.
Fifty thousand dollars. For six figures we each bought a bit of a big wet rag and now we had to pay another fifty thousand more to wring it out. I was sure as hell frustrated that day. The futility of our situation drove me crazy. And in my anger I threw a can of soft drink on the floor. The can popped a tiny hole and a thin jet of misty cola pushed the can along the floor like a wheel, wetting us.
There was a time in 2001 when it felt like all I ever thought about was the handicap and his incredible voice. I’d come home from work and immediately turn on the TV news and check the Internet. The previous spring, I finally got high speed. I became obsessed with news websites and personal homepages.
Then the handicap’s mother died of lung cancer, a month after the Saudi college students plowed the airliners into the World Trade Centre. She lived through the fainting spell that day in the rec room, but it was a sure sign of her decline.
The handicap sang beautifully at her funeral. His voice had grown in the last year to develop a fuller range, and the circumstance brought out all the emotion of his arias. Under his ill-fitting black Moore’s, I could see he had lost weight. He was gaunt, had dirty ears, long fingernails. Since she died, the handicap wasn’t being well taken care of. Left to fend for himself, even a week was a long time. He stood there shaking on his crutches, singing. I could see his mother’s hair fuzzing out above the lid of the open coffin. Many of the other people in the condo attended, too, spread out in the pews. The fast-food families. Students. Gays. The small-dog owners. We were all there for the funeral. For the last six months whenever we saw each other in the elevators or hallways we’d been marvelling at the handicap’s online popularity. We were proud of him. He had talent. The Internet proved it. The video of him singing and sweeping was being discussed and referenced on other popular websites and online media and our neighbour’s personal homepage was getting a lot of traffic. We hardly noticed all the construction around us, our fifty thousand dollars being pasted up around us. We paid attention to the Internet. We listened to the handicap sing opera.
We watched our newsanchor in 510’s reports on the noon hour show about the handicap and our condo crisis. She interviewed us, though not me personally. The story had some impact on the problem, but not soon enough to save us any money.
I sometimes wonder where they are now, all those other ruined tenants. I know the newsanchor and our strata council president bounced back financially, got married, and I watched her first broadcast when she was promoted to the five-thirty early news slot. I know the graphic designer still makes websites and now teaches making websites.
Every once in a while I log into the chat room the graphic designer created and maintains where we keep each other posted on news related to the leaky condo crisis. The last time I checked there was a comment posted linking to an article from a newspaper out of Houston, Texas, about a man who was brutally murdered. Their main suspect in the murder was a Canadian at large. The Houston police alleged the motive was that the deceased was the chief developer who built the man’s leaky condominium up here in Vancouver, our condo. The article mentioned how the developers of the condominium had all long-since vanished by the time the first signs of leaks began to show up. Our first leaks were showing up in the handicap’s suite as a early as 1997, when issues regarding the condo’s structural integrity were still being dodged in strata meetings so as not to scare off potential buyers reading our minutes. By the time the building was assessed and the cost was estimated, read the Houston report, no one could be rounded up to be held accountable, so there was no one to sue. The news link described one grisly detail after another. It also mentioned that the alleged? Canadian murderer stabbed his victim fifty thousand times. The police used international dental records to ID the victim. He wasn’t cut to pieces, he was stabbed that many times, said local police. His body was reportedly an unrecognizable mush.
The tenant who posted the news link was the newsanchor. She added a comment with the link that asked us whether we thought it served the developer right for what he did to the widowed mother and her handicap, to say nothing of all of us? I wanted to post a reply to her comment, but I didn’t know the answer, and I couldn’t risk exposing my IP address. But nevertheless, reading her question to us, I was reminded of those stressful days stuck in that predicament, our special connection brought us together somehow, saddled with all that brutal debt, our destroyed homes, dying families, lost opportunities. My heart instantly filled with all the old anger. Fifty thousand dollars it cost each of us to renovate thanks to the negligence of our dead developer. I wondered if the handicap was angry like I was that day in the rec room when he broke out in song, thrashed by emotion, in pain and crying out, or was some other more mature emotion responsible for that heavenly tenor.
*found this photo by Derek K. Miller via the internet
by Lee | Filed under Non-Fiction
Here’s a fairly long essay called On Tuition Row that I wrote about language extinction, also available in the PEN Canada anthology Finding the Words, edited by Jared Bland.
ON TUITION ROW
If you want to learn about nature, to appreciate nature, it is necessary to understand the language that she speaks in.
—Richard Feynman, physicist, lecturer, adventurer (1918-1988)
In general, every country has the language it deserves.
—Jorge Luis Borges
For a couple desperate years in the middle of the decade I worked for a company that sold post-secondary tuition to waylaid young adults with low averages and show business dreams. There were about two dozen staff in our department, split in two offices. I was included in the half seated in a poorly ventilated space the shape of the passenger cabin in a prop plane. We all took turns playing passenger, flight attendants, or pilot. On one side of the aisle the office windows looked down at computer classrooms on the first floor, and over what would be the other wing, the windows looked down at a room set up with a cinematic green-screen for making special effects.
Uniquely positioned between these rooms, and not far from a latex lab and a fry kitchen, meant that some days a dark burning smell would permeate our recycled oxygen. A sulfuric fume or grease explosion or a nauseating solvent leak would pour from the overhead vents and stall work altogether. I was not the only person in our department who found the stifling atmosphere hard on the throat. Our manager would call expecting deliverables. To clear our throats, we each. had our ways. One resorted to talking louder — as if a lion’s roar ever stalled a managerial gas! Others crouched low over their desks below the level of the toxic air, gripping their plastic banana-protecting holsters at their sides in a rainbow of muskets, and spoke only in exfoliating doomsday voices about the workload: this MOU and that PPT — it was never-ending! All the while nibbling ruefully from their unbruised fruit or from a Ziploc bag of home-brought carrotsticks in water – don’t get these crouchers going! They slowly pumiced you down to a depressing nut with their trench-jitters.
“But that’s why we’re here,” I’d always say, “to work. And then to work more.”
“One thing at a time then,” they jittered. “Give me one thing. Not five things. Ten things at a time? I need more IT.”
Actually the word colleagues used was not “thing,” it would most likely be “deliverables.” As a synonym for whatever thing we were working on, deliverables has whipcrack. It’s active, it’s got looming deadlines. As part of my job in this office I was daily faced with all sorts of words like deliverables. I was hearing words used for the first time outside business books and sitcom television. So as not to expose myself for harbouring what I sensed were insubordinate feelings I bit my true tongue and made somewhat of a professional attempt to fake a palate for the office vocab. In this department we were all hired to help sell tuition to prospective customers because in our other lives we were artists and writers and actors and webmasters and had some idea how people, regular people, communicate. Nevertheless in that three-month probationary period after being hired it was first priority to understand the dialect spoken within the company.
Three days a week I bicycled to the office and worked with a team of other desperate artists, happy to be paid to find ways to convince the youth of today to buy our tuition. We defined our brand, were in the middle of updating our website, and our tagline was “something-something dream.” We sold a fair deal of tuition every year. It was a solid product with lots of options, and it was expensive. Most of my job was spent updating the company’s website with new anecdotes about our customers. It was a fun, slow, caterpillaring process.
Over time the company spread out, leasing floors here and there in the neighbourhood to make room for more customers. At the time I worked there we had three buildings all to ourselves, and floors of towers and low-rise industrial buildings elsewhere in town.
Other companies who leased nearby sold rival tuition. It was kind of the town’s educational ghetto. A reputable trade school had a whole city block south of us for culinary, legal aid, nursing, and electronics tuitions. A major humanities university was located on the bottom floors of a mushroom-shaped tower to our north. There were two or three single-room schools down towards the pier that specialized in glamour makeup and hair styling.
And language was everywhere: A dozen or more separate companies sold ESL, a popular tuition package that appeals to young, unfussy foreigners who want freedom from home and to learn our conversational English at their parents’ expense. Unlike how we toiled to highlight our company’s uniqueness, the ESL companies preferred to avoid identification and focus on service-oriented advertising. ESL signage showed up in our neighbourhood like illegible multi-lingual Scrabbleboards tacked on to the windows of corner storefronts or third storey offices – few had actual classrooms, their employees met with customers in coffee shops to talk grammar. Little one-room ESL companies would rather make their interchangeable private services seem like part of one big sprawling franchise entity. I thought their corporate signage was graphically incorrect by any other design standard besides anonymity — making it hard to tell one company from the next protected them all. One cold rainy Thursday near the end of a month in the middle of winter I remember walking past some stunned-looking ESL customers who showed up for a verb class that morning to find their school gone. Overnight the company imploded in a single bankroll.
There were other companies which sold tuition packages that did not compete with our product at all. Anyone who wanted to pay for lessons in traditional English combat could visit the second floor of the building next to ours with its full kit of Medieval weapons, broadsword, claymore, round shield, plate armour, halberd, flanged mace, ear dagger, ready to instruct you in this martial vocabulary for a fee. A peaceful alternative across the street sold fitness and aerobics outfits and one-hour hot yoga sessions.
I observed the many kinds of educations one could receive on these streets. The main offices of the company I worked for was between these schools, skid row, and a centre for Scientology. Our customers might be outside smoking between classes on aspect ratio and artificial light and get mixed up with a dangerous fanatic from the Dianetics office or a spaced-out zealot on a fresh fix. After class our customers might wait for the next bus with a role-playing knight, and fall in love with an ESL gone astray.
Before I locked my bike in the morning someone in front of Scientology would always ask, “Would you like to take a personality test?”
We all offered tests. Working on tuition row I heard people from across the world struggle to learn the difficulties of English or discover another talent – and knowing the language is essential to any job. I was right there with the rest as I listened and tried to remember all the nuances of the language I was surrounded by at the office, what I will call Corporate English.
CE, or what the Rutgers linguist William Lutz calls Doublespeak, conflating two words from Orwell’s 1984 (newspeak and doubletalk), is certainly the dominant slang among the English speaking world’s offices, and as a result, Corporate English has an influence on the way the rest of us speak, too, even if we lack an office or find our desks cut off from the conversation. As Lutz observes in his comparison of Orwell’s novel and his America, Doublespeak is an anti-mode of speaking that swaps the rococo of the castle artistocracy with a coarse jargon to suit the age of nano-capitalists. “Doublespeak is language that only pretends to say something; it’s language that hides, evades or misleads,” Lutz writes. But language can’t hide from meaning as Lutz suggests this slang does. For slang to inhere the words must be wonderfully vivid, imposing and direct, and impressed on your cultural perspective from high authority. Corporate English has intense clout in business. I found Corporate English unfamiliar and intimidating, and alienated from the source of its power, every time I heard CE used in the office I could also hear Lutz’s reproach echoing in my head, distracting me from my work. I tried to decipher the language to stay employed. I think calling it Doublespeak miscasts the problem. Blaming the feudal system of business on the incoherence of the language and not the perspective of the speakers is like bailing out the banks, so to speak. “Language that only pretends to say something,” is too quick a dismissal, it’s been applied to every foreign tongue in the book and it’s never true. Rap slang is dissed likewise, and the same reaction was had by the foreigners who encountered the language of the Algonquin Abenaki four hundred years ago, or Australia’s reservation Kriol in the 1960s.
Even the ever-spacious and sensitive thinker Henry David Thoreau, when describing his first encounter with the First Nation language of Abenakis in The Maine Woods, wrote of how it was “a purely wild and primitive American sound, as much as the barking of a chickaree, and I could not understand a syllable of it.” But where the linguist Lutz sees only nightmare in Corporate English, the unfettered Thoreau also wrote of how “these Abenakis gossiped, laughed, and jested, in the language in which Eliot’s Indian Bible is written, the language which has been spoken in New England who shall say how long? These were the sounds that issued from the wigwams of this country before Columbus was born: they have not yet died away; and, with remarkably few exceptions, the language of their forefathers is still copious enough for them.” Is there some such joy and pleasure in CE?
I knew how copious a language Corporate English was but until my first chance to attend a staff meeting about tuition I had never heard it so assiduously employed. Before I was hired by the company my notion of CE came from its reputation, its place in American business, and all the staff spinoffs, blogs featuring fake CE words like drink the Kool-Aid and blamestorm. But I never knew which words were seriously used in an office and which ones were disgruntled employee gags. Did staff really say you rise the corporate ladder through assmosis? Did any boss really expect, even metaphorically, to boil the ocean? Maybe staff really did have a spoken variation on the boss’s dialects, maybe it was only spoken out of earshot of employers, or posted on blogspot?
In my experience, it was the tuition company’s pyramidical hierarchy itself that regulated the flow of speech. My boss was an MBA-by-correspondence and routinely dropped his knowledge in conversation. I learned to differentiate between what was business certified and what was mere regional coinage by listening to him and my various superiors. Action item. Deliverables. M.O.U. Team. The slang was used with a fuzzy grey partitioned sincerity that was not to be fucked with. Along with the rules of the highway system, the strict doctrines of the military-industrial complex is another perennial role model and loandword cache for Corporate English—the three languages are all tribally connected. Even tuition companies like ours operated on a loose highway-military model. Even our online project organizer was called Basecamp.
One night after the boss’s sudden layoff of a talented employee rattled my morale, I lay in bed wondering, Should I become more than a desktop soldier and learn to speak fluent Corporate English? Implement a few new words and…downsize…a few others? Just use cliché at the office, that’s all. I knew that to accept the merits of each new word was part of my job, it was required of me to swallow CE wholeheartedly to keep this sweet part-time gig. But could I get my tongue around the corny patois?
Corporate English is an office creole in which many speakers are so fluent that they might not even notice a change in dialects when they come home in the evening to their dinner and children and Mad Men. It is a jargon full of cog-wheel images of monetary and managerial thought. It doesn’t suit home life. The metrics of making something from scratch with a small child are impossible to measure. Have you ever watched a Powerpoint on upcoming lovemaking? What is the added value in cleaning your own spotted trout? Family problems are never irregardless of alcohol. Corporate English is business metaphors, money and power are its inspiration.
Slow learner. Black humour. Kiss ass. Karaoke nights. Overstress. Sexual harrassment. Everyone in the office had an exit strategy they might not realize they were hatching. And the hole I was digging was this empty space where my voice used to be. The academy is derided for its pettiness, the office for its fickleness. At least three of our meetings were about unexpected changes in cubicle seating.
Listening to CE spoken left me stupefied. But to actually see Corporate English can give the trench-jitters to even the hardiest war generals. “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,” is the famous remark of US General Stanley McChrystal after seeing a PowerPoint on Afghanistan that looked like a bowl of angel hair pasta. It is believed that some kind of value is added to CE when it’s paired with a PowerPoint presentation. “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” the general added. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.” (Some problems in the world are not solved by a bullet, either.) In my time with the tuition company I had the opportunity to witness my boss perform three PPT slideshows. They were high definition displays of power, full of bullets, aspirational if there was any point to them at all. In Powerpoint, utopia is next fiscal year, forward-thinking predictions requiring stock footage. Stock replaces real. Real No true documentation will suffice. And graph and Venn and other non-representational Miro-esque abstractions are meant to interpret metaphors like human resources and risk premium.
I thought of PPT as office rhapsodies. I tried to imagine my boss as a rapper and this slideshow his video. Rap is a slang also joined by metaphors for money and power, and among staff bling, gangsta, hater, and pimped, were rap loanwords used when discussing the look of our website.
I was foreign to CE, frustrated by it. I was a CESL in need of a tutor. But the tuition company where I worked was not going bankrupt like the English schools down the street. I was the one who skipped classes and resisted learning CE. All I heard was Lutz’s doublespeak in the company’s slang, didn’t respect the inflection. I chalk it up to cant, another money language — a secret thesaurus of the criminal class. Cant’s enticements are its colourful verbiage and vivid metaphors, obscurities which serve to veil in plain sight all the less-savoury aspects of illegal business. Rap and mob movies are the most entertaining outlet for hearing North American cant, but CE is by far the most visible, form of cant used in English.
Most slang is teasing and ironic and a nuanced antisocial statement, a reaction to the preconceptions of others; not so for Corporate English. CE’s cultural status makes it a self-imposed, deadpan, face-value cant. With its pithiest phrases and acronyms minted by journalists (Future Shock, Tipping Point, USP), and its many words lifted from laboratories, road crews, rap, and the military, CE is not ironic, it trusts wholeheartedly in the tested value of its language’s debtors.
Outliers. Change-agents. Blue sky. Actionable. Integrated. Embed. Diss. Props. Skillset. Narrative. Go live.
Irregardless has been in use in CE longer than the i-fad, the long tail, the tipping point, and metrics combined. The stubbornness of irregardless in CE usage is found in the dialect’s meaning of the word, its close attachment to the central theme of power. Irregardless, the prefix hangs a double-negative flaw on the word that is so unnecessary, and suffuses it with pungent ironies that staff cannot mention in front of boss. Power is never corrected. Power corrects bad behaviour. But I could not tell my boss the correct way of saying irregardless. It is a pointless word. But the staff must remain loyal to the boss and quiet even irregardless of the nettle word. Maybe practitioners of CE perpetuate this disgrace unconsciously, but that is rarely the case with language, which is communally enforced. To remain employed, staff must accept irregardless. To make its power plainspoken, and plainly spoken, so that only a petty snob on staff would correct his boss during a meeting for such a slummy and irrelevant act of stupidity — I offer irregardless as the locus for Corporate English and the kryptonite source of its stamina.
The misadjudication of penultimate has likely found its correct place in CE usage, by coming second, after irregardless,s in CE’s list of most enduring words.
A similar theme of power can be found in the green economy, a concept that makes everyone go digging in their mind-gardens for ways to grow their business, grow their brand, grow their sales. What kind of bitter seed must a boss plant to grow sales? But in CE, sales and debt are all there is to talk about, so you constantly need fresh money synonyms the way rappers use new aspects of materialism to express their success.
Likewise while at the company I looked for opportunities to grow my vocabulary. But it never sunk in what was being said at meetings, because my fascination with the language was as a fiction writer. I was a part-time dummy, and I used that as my excuse to remain detached and amused and ultimately fail at being employed.
I found Corporate English was not mine to drop into my conversation. I held no possession over its glossary. After this realization, I sat through our Monday morning meetings silently smiling. Boss certainly never made me learn how to open PowerPoint. I did not find any other clear ways to communicate my thoughts either, not without feeling condescended to. But speaking without CE is an obstinate and snobby way to work. I learned the choice was to make life difficult for myself, or assimilate.
In the time I worked there I watched plenty of others in my department with an ironic handle on CE get laid off without notice and given an hour to clear out. The trench-jitters were setting in. I expected my end to come any day. I recalled how in eight years of French immersion at public school I never learned to speak or write it as well as I could read it. With my tongue tied by my occupation in this company, I figured my chances of survival in it were dim. I lamented my condition and my paycheque hanging in the balance.
So, as my ever-patient and sympathetic reader might have gleaned, one spring afternoon on my lunch break I decided to visit the library to find books about the greater destiny of language, in the hopes that what I found might help me learn CE and bolster my sense of duty to my employer. If all languages are fundamentally alike in our brains, as Noam Chomsky has asserted, then what is my hairy problem with Corporate English besides a fussy academic stubbornness?
My reading related my resistance to this lame English to the seven thousand living languages on the planet that are at risk of going extinct this century. I began to come back to Lutz’s side. The more I read, the more I considered Corporate English as possibly the ultimate pine beetle of William Burroughs’ imaginging, one language as an all-exterminating virus. MBA petri dishes breeding fire ants capable of wiping out the planet.
“I don’t mean to downplay the challenge of conserving species and ecosystems,” said the linguist and author David Harrison, whose life work is to archive dying languages, “but languages are more critically endangered. They are going extinct faster. And these languages contain some of the secrets to human survival and adaptation.”
Already fewer than a hundred languages are spoken copiously around the world. Before the end of this century, half of all languages spoken today will be extinct. Soon we will all speak Corporate English.
At the tuition company I saw only one way for employees to learn any of the outside world’s secrets to survival and adaptation. It came in the form of a request to boss for a Pro-D day. A Monday away from your desk will be granted, but only on condition of successful application to attend a three-night conference on CSS and Google analytics in the windowless basement rooms of a remote hotel in Maple Ridge.
I worked at a slang’s pace already, what with my full-time salary and twenty-four-hour workweek. I never had the added gall to request one, I came to the office with gall enough to think doing so was my pro-d.
“Each language is a way of perceiving the universe,” said Borges.
“All people are simply different options,” Wade Davis often says. Davis, a Canadian ethnobotanist who gave the 2009 Massey Lecture on his study of the history and language of Polynesia, an extinct culture that once spread across the Pacific ocean: “Ten thousand square kilometres. Tens of thousands of islands flung like jewels across the open sea.” The navigators of Polynesia, as Davis learned, could name by memory over two hundred and fifty stars in the night sky, and could make their way through “vast oceans to distant atolls” by interpreting the colour of the clouds and the way the waves broke, “each island with its own distinct refractive pattern as unique as a fingerprint.” Davis has said “if you took all of the genius that put a man to the moon and applied it to the ocean, you’d get Polynesia.”
The ethnobotanist Davis and the linguist Harrison agree that one universal language for all mankind spells disaster. Universal tongue does not imply or promise peace and unity but does, at least, mean the extinction of every other way we have for seeing the world. Davis asks us to imagine if instead of the primacy of English, how we would feel if our universal language was Swahili or Inuktitut. But what I find more distressing and easier to picture is the day when Earth speaks CE.
“As for English,” the French revolutionary Bertrand Barere, said in a political speech given in January 1794, “a great and free language on the day when it mastered the words ‘The Power of the People,’ English is now no more than the dialect of a tyrannous and despicable government, the dialect of banks and letters of credit. Our enemies turned French into a court language, and thus they brought it low. It is for us to make it the language of peoples…It is the destiny of French alone, to become the universal language.”
Meanwhile two thousand species of birds, and their wild songs, have gone extinct along the Pacific Ocean since Polynesia.
In his book Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, the Canadian writer Mark Abley finds remarkable differences in perspective between the Australian Aboriginal language of Jaru and English. “Writing in English, I naturally say ‘Jaru speakers.’ But I should probably say ‘Jaru listeners.’ Being wise, in Jaru, is ‘having ears’: mangir-djaru. Being unwise or silly is ‘having no ears’: mangirgir-mulungu. What in colloquial English we mean when we say somebody is dumb, the Jaru language conveys by saying a person is deaf.” How much more of the Jaru life is spent deliberately listening, and how much more often are we expected to simply talk? To go from Jaru to Corporate English would make an attentive listener look dumb. To go from Corporate English to Jaru would make an assertive speaker look deaf.
On my lunch break I read another example in Abley’s book—an Inuktitut word with a double-meaning like dumb, but to describe someone who is nervous. Puijilittatuq means something like nervous but is commonly translated in its literal form as, “He does not know which way to face because of how many seals he sees at the ice surface.” One word for that. Is there a word like puijilittatuq, is there an English moment like it? Might the south’s closest equivalent to puijilittatuq be when we feel frozen with stage-fright? But add to that an empty stomach, feeling truly frozen, and possibly in more danger? It puts the speaker in the eye of a common experience, with a clear point of view, and a high poetry in the compactness of its imagery.
For Canadians to the south, a word like puijilittatuq has roots in modern medical observations instead. Our English words for puijilittatuq are not images of a landscape or other animals and our relationship to these external forces. Totems are out of fashion in talk of the Western mind. Nervous is a disconnected landscape, its roots are in the tangled threads of a medical cadaver. Nervous is a self-centred, biological, and inert word. Nerves, we should prefer them to puijilittatuq? I can easily see my prickly nerves and I become preoccupied with the frayed physical condition of my electrified feelings, and in trying to see my nerves maybe I fail to notice whatever these seals and fragile ice around me are, what they represent to me that raised such an alarm. When seals in the office surface, what am I capable of? The word puijilittatuq implies some call-to-action. The word nervous asks that the speaker’s consciousness please hold still, irregardless of the seals, and take this or that medicine to calm the puijilittatuq.
Depression, something to be paved over.
Leverage knowledge capital, to steal an employee’s ideas.
Language directs one’s mental picture of life. And when I spoke Corporate English I saw the world as managers do, as a very tiny, manageable place. Through the lens of CE, Earth was spelled the same size as a circle on a PowerPoint slide, and all the new customers were like sand. Even when I spoke the language of CE it made me sound tiny, in its world I was as small as a byte passing through our network bandwidth. CE is from the point of view of the boss. In the poetry of Corporate English bandwidth is a manager’s near synonym of puijilittatuq.
I said to myself, I should ungrit my teeth and speak it.
I learned on my lunch-break that in the Hopi language spoken in Arizona and New Mexico for thousands of years, one can talk of things happening without mentioning the thing. The subject and noun can be absent from the sentence and implied by an i suffix on the verb — Abley uses the example of rehpi, “flash (occurred).” How can the Pueblo of Arizona and New Mexico speak in a tongue without a necessity for nouns when they’re so crucial to our ability to speak at all?
“Your inner voice quiets down. Internal dialogue is stimulated by a preparatory desire to speak, but it is not actually useful if there are no other people around.” This was the sense of extreme solitude, as described to a master journalist, felt by the itinerant Julian Assange, master-hacker and creator of the whistleblower website Wikileaks, a man absorbed in the most probing forms of decipherment, of computer languages, and of top secret corporate jargon. Solitude, as Assange describes it, is a Hopi experience, without nouns—the opposite of living in Corporate English, which is a deeply social dialect that relies on nouns to make its point. CE is metonymic, a cluttered dashboard of bobbleheaded headhunters and late deliverables. Whereas Hopi speaks easily of a horizonless horizon.
After lunch I put my library loans beside my computer, and before I had time to finish one e-mail my boss came by to chat. A project that I was responsible for had bottlenecked on my desk. The idea I had was to buy hundreds of used records and swap all the labels to ones that read something-something…dream. But months after the first pitch meeting the new labels still had not been designed yet. Our company now owned hundred and hundreds of used records that were being stored in my cubicle. And I completely forgot about the added cost of glue. My boss wanted to know what I was reading. He told me he was reading a copy of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas on loan from one of the staff he hired recently to write for our website. “Funny,” I said, hearing the off-rhyme in our reading habits, and showed him my library book, David Crystal’s Language Death.
“That’s fictional?” My boss took the book from my hands and began reading at random from the top of a page, “‘…this comment by Ezra Pound: “The sum of human wisdom is not contained in any one language, and no single language is capable of expressing all forms and degrees of human comprehension.”’” Boss continued aloud with Crystal’s reply, “‘So, one way of increasing our stock of human wisdom is to learn more languages, and to learn more about languages. And one way of ensuring that this sum of human wisdom is made available – if not for ourselves, then for the benefit of future generations – is to do as much as we can to preserve them now, at a time when they seem to be most in danger. As each language dies, another precious source of data – for philosophers, scientists, anthropologists, folklorists, historians, psychologists, linguist, writers – is lost.’
“Interesting stuff, is it for a class?” he said and shut Language Death, passed it back to me.
“Yes,” I said.
“Listen,” he said to me, “we need to discuss some items. The company can no longer afford you at this salary when you’re part-time.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said and after listening a little longer to his prorogations about American customers and mortgages and so on, I shook his hand and said good-bye to the other staff—I had an hour to pack my things and be out of there, and I went out into the sun. It was not yet lunch and the end of May, 2008, so I bought a sandwich and a San Pelligrino and I went and sat in the park with friends all afternoon.
After I split from the company and no longer felt threatened by the dialect I regained ninety-percent of the movement in my tongue. No one says anything about it, and I don’t notice any difference in how I talk.
When I walked out that day with my severance promise, I was reminded by our neighbour kiddycorner to my office that the tyranny of a single stupid mindset is what disturbs level-headed people about the popularity of something like Scientology. Scientology is based on a paperback novel. And when I walked by the Scientology centre on my way home from my last day at work at the tuition company I saw they even had a picture of the paperback novel out front of their corner store. The door-greeters asked me if I wanted a free personality test. I thought it was impossible that anyone inside there could be assiduously using the vocabulary of this pulp fiction sci-fi cult. I found it more plausible to hear the language of the bleeding drunks and lost schizoids and crack addicts down the block—that goosebrained babble made more sense for me than Scientology. I unlocked my bike and rode away in the direction of skid row. Language is an ecology of tongues that rhapsodies or goes dry on the same principles of diversity as any species in the ocean, forest or plain. I try to ride along the old roads of language, those left seedy and outgrown by the latest English, because I believe that truth is heard in every writer’s other secret duty, to come up with one new joke, and help recirculate into a common tongue at least one word from the stories of the dead.
by Lee | Filed under Fiction
Beware of the scribes, which desire to walk in long robes, and love greetings in the markets, and the highest seats in the synagogues, and the chief rooms at feasts; (Luke 20:46)
I’m known as Verona Rupes. With tons of determination and over many years, never mind how many, I spent my entire life, and mine and a not a few other men’s fortunes in pursuit of the Aurochs. How I became Director of the Sony-Smithsonian Museum of Extinction in New Hope, Virginia, and commandeered enough respect and trust in my industry to own one, is the story of my life. The Aurochs was more than a giant cow. It was a Polish-made sports utility vehicle. First rolled off the Daewoo Motors assembly line in May 1999 days before the sudden seizure of the nation’s economy following a dispute with Russia over oil transfer credits. I searched for one of these SUVs my entire career. I was obsessed, yes. For a few of years here and there I can recall being distracted by the happiness of marriage or a mistress or the sale of some trifle, a fleeting success. My most recent wife Polli was a brave blonde meds trafficker with her own skytaxi and looked a ninth my ago. But that ended over a decade ago now, and the truth is, all my other endeavours and adventures in the field of antiquities were swings around the light poles in my lifelong hunt for the 1999 Daewoo Aurochs. I swear this car has been stuck in my mind’s eye like a fleck of gold I can’t rub off. It’s because of the Aurochs that my first love is post-Industrial antiquity.
When I was at Sotheby’s Primary School where I received formal training – that’s when I first saw footage of the Aurochs. I was a preemie born with a heart defect to parents living in the hospice. No one expected me to survive long after mother died when I was a mere two-and-a-half, but by and by a couple dozen kilos of malleable boyhood formed itself. Harbouring a limp from my malnourishment in infancy, I was teased and ignored at Sotheby’s, and my asthma wounded me when I ran and played with other chilteens. My astigmatism surfaced by the age of two and has deteriorated ever since — I’d be blind without my contraband contacts. Imagine me, little Vee Rupes in 2223, one of a billion orphans aged seven enrolled in a trade school of some kind, and I’m squinting through my blotted vision to find angles where I can see clearly the SUV pictured in an old catalogue from Fall, 2188—I can practically remember the lot numbers—of nearly priceless antiques from the post-Indies. A hot purple model and the first to surface on the secondary market in more than a century. It belonged to a gravity transportation czar with a new residence on Mars. It looked to me like the most daunting and indestructible vehicle ever bought or sold. Below the image I read that this was only one of two Aurochs left in the universe. Other kids built toy airhorses and were obsessed with learning about our first voyage to Mars in 2110. I studied the dark age before then, with all the gasoline-fuelled cars and drive-thru and hospitals. I marvelled at the simple smalless of the number two.
The aurochs the vehicle’s named after was a massive prehistoric bovine that was swept away in the early tides of the Holocene extinction event. The aurochs had no Noah to save it. An aurochs was like a great shaggy bull mastiff with extremely long sharp horns and blown up to nearly the size of an elephant, way longer horns than an elephant’s tusks, which must have been very threatening to people. It was hunted down and killed and skinned and eaten and sacrificed like every other massive predatory animal that lived in herds. Ever-dwindling herds of aurochs were chased by ever-growing human populations. Driven north by insatiable spear-and-bow hunters up from the Indian subcontinent, the aurochs was last seen on Earth in 1627 when two potbellied poachers with muskets took down a young female rutting against a tree in the dense, bleak, smoggy forests of Jaktorow, Poland. The poachers skinned and left the carcass near where Daewoo Motors set up the Aurochs factory nearly four hundred years later in complex tribute.
The Aurochs SUV had the most epic hood ornament. Incredible. Award-winning. Dash computer operates on an unfathomably small half gig of memory. Adjustable everything. Seats nine comfortably. Slavic luxury vehicle. The Euro didn’t even exist yet to pay for this behemoth with. It was another century before the Euro and dollar merged to become our ears. The Aurochs cost over a million American dollars in Poland, a perestroika nation still teething on democracy, using a nonsense currency a hundredth the value of the American dollar. To ship one to another country required political grease and plenty of muscle — apparently no one in Poland was officially responsible for vehicle exports. The factory was shuttered. The Aurochs became an absurd jewel among automobiles, more of a rumour or myth than transportation. It was too late arriving on the scene to be of much use to people. I must confess I sometimes compare myself to the Aurochs. Even as a child I felt extinct, or approaching so, in any event, lost. The tender, school-age version of myself was as disenchanted a human being as I am today, with nothing in common with anyone, even myself.
The big wagon’s value among collectors is hard for an outsider to fathom. The hood ornament is one reason. An aurochs fixed right at the lip there extending out beyond the front of the SUV. A brute bull in his prime with hind legs bent nearly seated on the vehicle, neither rear hoof is flat on the hood, haunch muscles taut and flexed and ripped in the moment before the bull’s about to leap forward, his long slightly curved horns tapering to a thin hypodermic vanishing point facing the road ahead, a huge ornament, three kilos of solid steel designed by prominent animalier of the time, Stücka Heck, in the clean unfussy style of Bohumil Kafka. Some auto historians speculate Heck was inspired by the cave paintings in Lascaux, France, and it’s quite possible, but tell me, what artist isn’t? But no Neanderthal ever came up with the details you see on this ornament, flesh rumpling, fierce seething nostrils, grumped brow, and a detail you don’t notice immediately—a scorpion lying on the hood underneath the aurochs clamped to the its testicles. The scorpion’s got the balls securely pinched in its front claws and almost about to pierce the aurochs’ belly with the tip of its venomous tail. All solid steel. You have to imagine the scale of this ornament, in 1999 — any other car’s fibreglass hood would buckle under the weight. The Aurochs was one of the three largest vehicles on Earth.
GROTESQUE IN NATURE
The Aurochs was made for an age when people believed they were a separate spectacle of the grotesque, practically unrelated to nature. They also thought a shopping frenzy was outside nature, or overspending in a jewellery store or auto mall an irrational and vulnerable mindset, or the gut instinct that drives franchise obesity or bulldozing or ghettos or congested sinuses – none of this seemed natural to our ancestors. Doctors, medicine, hospitals, these were all legal. Because they were shook by the face of death. This was an age of unfetteredness, freedom heaped upon freedom, vice upon vice, and shook to the core, they watched their health. The closer they came to neutralizing cancer and dementia the less they smoked – now we encourage smoking and criminalize synthetic treatments. Thirty-six billion people on earth and we’re proud of a billion or more dying a year – there’s too many of us! I’ve seen many go, we all have, until the ordeal of living becomes unbearable. I get shook by death, too, but like a late-twentieth century Boomer. I don’t run towards it, I defend myself against it. I know where to buy antibiotics when I need them. Chemos got me through the bouts, without them I’d be dead, too.
As I said, I was never naturally healthy. I failed to mention that along with asthma and astigmatism, my hair went prematurely white when I was three. I chipped a tooth on a banana around this time and was almost willing to believe my own rep, weak at the soul the nannies used to call me around Sotheby’s daycare, and the label stuck. I give off this deathly pall apparently, even though I live and everyone around me dies. My cheeks, my eye sockets, how sunken are they? As I grew older I hoped the grey made me look like my father before his death, and I used my hair to get me the respect granted an adult before I gained some confidence in my voice. I never said a word in protest when I stood by and watched my mother wave so long and leave the planet without me, not so much as a, No, Mama! I said nothing at my father’s death, either, not a year later, and my memories of their funerals are as fresh and lurid as if they both happened yesterday when I rewatched the footage. Mother waving her hand from there inside the silk interior of the coffin and a smile of such contented self-satisfaction as she lay her palm back on top of the white bow on her chest. They both seemed so proud to be leaving me, last of the Rupes, as they did their duty for the planet. I remember my mother’s last words to me: See you soon.
I’m divorced twice and a widower four times over. My parents raised me briefly, between smoke therapy and vomits, and then left me with nothing besides a scholarship to an auction school. My siblings and relatives all took their lives or caught a similar plague trend. The few dear friends I once had have all passed. My last wife Polaris sold blackmarket chemos and antibiotics out of her skytaxi until she was murdered by twelve members of a drug cartellite. Of the nine, all but one of my children are gone, and my frail son Melvin’s on his way out soon, too, I fear. I’m the only one left. I raised a devout family. I spent my life among the devout. I acted devout. I acted natural through every pandemic, disease outbreak, and infection. They died. I didn’t. I never explained myself. But among those who ignore the natural health law there is an unspoken oath, and that’s never snitch on a doctor. We take our medicines and have the surgeries but not even my dying child learns the name of my GP. If you’re caught, the police are merciless and the law is unforgiving.
Had I not learned to conceal from myself the dark sorrow I should have felt over my parents’ deaths, I’m sure I would be dead, too. Everyone at Sotheby’s expected me to follow my parents at any moment. The Aurochs was how I pulled through; it’s how I’ve always pulled through.
Mars has known the name Verona Rupes since I was a grad student. As intern auctioneer I was notorious for driving up prices for neglected masterpieces of the post-Industrial market. I was in my thesis year at Sotheby’s—on the post-Indies—first in my class, and even had the strongest chin, like a cliff, and weakest temper, like a cave where my heart was meant to be. There was nothing I could do about my temperament. But in my field self-centredness is an asset. Bidders bought into the arrogance and vanity I exuded. Ever since I was in school I’ve regularly visited surgery parlours – they’re in every city, it’s the first thing I need to know about a new place — where’s the doctor’s den. I’ve justified breaking the law in the name of historical research and as a sentimental attachment to the manners of post-Indies. I have a strong survival instinct. Say if another student auctioneer outsold me on a Tuesday, I found a way to ruin his confidence. For example, I’d say something like, Hey, Burke, I watched you at last evening’s Ikea auctions. Oh, is that so, Rupes, I didn’t see you. And I’d say, I thought your descriptions of the objects sounded like greeting card free verse and wondered if by your tone of voice you meant to infantilise my field of expertise? And this combined with your misguided precis in the catalogue made the evening go from ambient to kinda suffocating. Then I’d watch as the auctioneer would sweat furiously and was sure to go home gnawing over my comments, spend a sleepless night in bed shouting at me, and draw hardly a single sale on Wednesday. By Thursday I’d have ostracized the nuisance Burke from his and my colleagues, exposed as a dilettante and memorizer, regaining my leadership and top ranking.
A second Aurochs did go on the block in Spring, 2255. I was two years fresh on the job as Director and couldn’t have raised the ears. I couldn’t sleep until I saw it though. I flew around the clock to see the thing where it was stashed in a suburb of Xamar, Usaomalia. It turned out to be a phoney third, or not a phoney, but a viciously superficial restoration job. A collector had found it on bricks being used as a shelter for a family of seven in the Adabiyat jungles of Qaraqalpaqstan. Father of the family sold it for a tune, and the new owner went looking for cans of a 1999 brand of Calcutta latex paint to match the period- accurate gunmetal grey used on this Aurochs, which was stripped bare to the foam shell in places. Couldn’t find paint, couldn’t find parts or repairman willing to work for him. So besides reconstructing the entire interior with stem-cell leather, a great deal of fake restoration was done to the chassis, which was bullet riddled. And the original overhead cam engine was half-missing. What was left of the parts the slum family had rigged into an ingenious indoor plumbing system. So the restoration team used parts from a mass-produced engine of a Chrysler Dynasty from the period, easy enough to come across. Like patching up a shattered Ming vase with scraps from your grandmother’s mugs-of-America collection.
The auctioneer for the event was Burke Nkubra, whose oily moustache I’d known since school days. For this event he was also boasting a virulent tumour on his neck the size of a gavelhead and in his opening remarks he justified this whole charade with some gak about how the restorers wanted to sell a roadworthy vehicle and so on. I loathed this funky Aurochs and I found Burke a tedious auctioneer, and I couldn’t afford it, I couldn’t afford the thing that wasn’t even close to what I really wanted, so I decided to poison its sale, deflate the bids, kill the buzz. I still had what looked like my same white hairstyle from when I was a kid, except now I was a man. I went before the cameras with my lens-corrected eyes and enhanced lips and albedo-like chin and argued vehemently that whatever the outcome of the auction this was not a legitimate Aurochs, nor I added was its sale representative of any market price for genuine post-Industrial antiques, and being well-regarded and having spoken first on the subject naturally the majority of the hamsters in my field agreed with me. In the end the sale went to a race-car junkie for a little under six-and-half-a-billion ears, and that was fifty-nine years ago.
I walked away from that phoney auction with a weird hunch. I’m flying home to meet my kids and Coleco, my third wife, for dinner, and slapping my proverbial forehead the whole time thinking why hadn’t it occurred to me sooner: There must be more Aurochs out there. Two mint and a third refurbished? Is that really all? If there’s thirty-plus billion people on the planet, can’t there be someone out there like me, an educated man with a full head of hairgrafts who beat bone marrow cancer, colon cancer, and childhood leukemia, and an abiding love for the tangible beauties of bygone days, but this alter-ego of mine is doing business on the other side of the fence from the institution, so to speak, and all he wants is to highway-drive an Aurochs, and day by day he’s stockpiling parts as they come on the block or whisper in parallel shadow markets to eventually mickeymouse a roadworthy model of his own. A man might want one Aurochs for the secret ex-airport hangar showroom and one Aurochs to take out on private ranch raceways.
Occasionally someone like Burke would auction a piece, some cracked crankshaft might surface in a dig, a rusty fan belt, or a muffler, that I refused to go near. They all sold for astronomical sums of course. I only wanted my name associated with perfection. This is also our natural way, though, and I couldn’t blame the buyers for having a bricoleur’s mentality – just as I wasn’t surprised by the public’s reaction when the suggestion of jettisoning all our garbage into space was put to referendum. Because I was born in the dump I know what a lot of people were thinking when they cast their vote, What if there’s something valuable in there I could use or sell? Many people have Noah’s instincts to build an Ark of their own to put all the precious things they come across for safety, stowed away in sets of two from the uncertain tides of oblivion.
I found the museum their male and female aurochs specimens on an expedition thirty years ago into what was then a war zone. Or rather the animals were found on protected land, frozen in time, and I shipped them out. When I was Director of the Extinction museum I’d thought if I acquired an aurochs, an actual skeleton of one of these mammoth oxen, for the museum, then I could position it centre stage, as it were, and begin to push the aurochs forward as the narrative for the museum, and inch myself closer to a budget for the vehicle. I think I was quoted at the time as saying it was the great hand of fortune that helped me to find those two enormous aurochs specimens. After all they weren’t skeletons, these were beasts on ice. It was all well-publicized — we filmed the entire visit to the remote Cashmere Mountains Resorts where the world’s multi-billionears own millions of acres of private property behind giant electrified walls that protect them from tour guides and insurgents while their names rise on the wait-list for homes on Mars.
My aurochs discovery was all thanks to a couple of bony-necked and bucktoothed intrepid young hermaphrodites interning for Extinction.com who skyped me one night from seven thousand metres above sea level where they’d found the two frozen inside a big bobbing ice cube they watched roll down a serac and go floating out into the glacial meltwater lakes in the Gasbroom valley. I tracked their coordinates and promised to buy the specimens from them at a boner of a price and grant them staggering promotions to VPs of .com with their promise of strict confidentiality and exclusivity. The interns were to wait at the nearest private resort until I came and met them. I told them I wanted to see the beasts on ice for myself. Unfortunately, when I arrived the two .com interns were nowhere around, and I learned from the security guards they had disappeared shortly before I arrived—likely kidnapped and tortured by the so-called Bermuda Shortstroopers, the guards guessed. The region’s tourists claimed the land as a traditional site of attraction and were at war with the local security guards and megawealthy residents over the right to vacation in Cashmere; so no easy place to remove giant frozen oxen from, and shaggy and sharp extinct animals don’t just slip under your anorak. But knowing the right people helps, and after another six months of negotiations with agents and lawyers and producers I was able to extract the aurochs-on-ice with my own museum team and a documentary crew and a publishing deal in place. The aurochs were sent to our lab to be plastinated, and a year later I installed them as the main attraction.
Thirteen years ago, on a bright winter day, I was walking to work. I remember the air tasted distinctly of aluminium, a cleansing chill off the ashy sea. Just as I pulled into my office I got a call with a Martian area code. It was the representatives of a prominent financial backer to the museum saying it was time I retired as Director. I insisted I had to stay; my work was incomplete. I was told to quietly step aside and welcome our new Director, Burke Nkubra, who was already in place, yes, I learned like everyone else when I read it in the newsfeed the moment I hung up from the meeting with the representatives and walked out my office door into the press conference. That’s how quickly I was swatted out of the way, like that. Burke had somehow lived long enough to replace me; the once-oily moustache now dandered, the pink grapefruit hanging on his neck had been a benign pulp this whole time, more of an affectation than any kind of life-threatening risk. Only day of my life I wanted to die, really wanted to.
Without the overwhelming distraction of my Directorship and all my daily bullying around the halls to preoccupy me, and left to my own devices, I found myself easily bored, anxious and on a good day prone to really childish bestial rages. I pursued the Aurochs with an even greater zeal, perhaps now looking back I could say it was irresponsible zeal, but not reckless, it was a depressive zeal. That is, I pursued the car all the more anxiously while developing an even greater sense of stealth in my approach. My self-discipline over myself was punishing. In public I showed absolutely no interest in the aurochs or the Aurochs now that I was out of the museum. So far as I was concerned, publicly, the aurochs was their business. Secrecy was my only way of knowing that the dream couldn’t be taken away from me. Knowing that my love for the Aurochs was a secret was all that kept me from disintegrating. Otherwise I was a leper. I felt pulled apart. I was nothing without the Directorship. I was falling apart one limb at a time, a cheek in bed, an eyelid over the phone, a toe floated to the surface of the bathwater, I left my fingers behind at a restaurant.
Wallowing in the black market for a few years after my retirement, by force, from a position I’d held for most of my life, a handful of profitable decades nothing more, while sucking up to narcopharmaceutical gangs, that’s when I met Polli, my most recent wife. Thanks to her I found the spunk to forge ahead and forget the past. I downloaded a new hairstyle. Enough with my white hair from childhood, I didn’t want to be an old man a minute longer. I got a completely new cut, dyed an all-natural purple wow by essence of jacaranda. I designed myself a whole new wardrobe to coordinate with my colourful new wife, new hair, and new career – importer-exporter— even switched my irises, and immediately began brokering sales of antiques and offering my consulting services to large estates needing expert evaluation of holdings before going to an auction house or institution.
And I had better black market opportunities now that I was with Polaris, who was in league with health criminals and corrupt Martians of all variety. I encouraged her and through her I met at least twenty-three dead-serious parts collectors on Mars who all had competing aims of mickeymousing a roadworthy Aurochs from genuine machine parts that trickled on to market now and then. They didn’t know each other. All bidding was by proxy. But I knew them all, and how much they all hated the thought of each other and had suspicions about who was who.
To start with I was careful to only sell small things in large quantities when I was buying and trading objects on the black market, like Aztec gold medallions, ostrich eggs, or once in a while swap a sea serpent for something worth a little more, like Hitler’s brain, the Bagram ivories. These bargains earned me trust among the agents and proxies. Along the way I discovered underground hospitals and learned who fronted as convenience stores or public relations firms, and who could put me in contact with the owners of famous Caravaggios stolen five hundred fifty years ago, Tupac verses thought to be destroyed, lost religious knowledge, coercion technologies no one is aware exist but are still being used today, I traded it all, as well as live animals thought to be long extinct, like the polar bear. Lazarus Taxa, it’s called.
POLARIS FROM DURBAN
When I met Polaris she was a young idealistic soldier strapped for cash – but very aggressive. She drove an armoured skytaxi over Durban that doubled as a traveling pharmacy and made deliveries. I was going through another bout of the C— and needed a lift. I called a number and she arrived. Meds up, she said and walked in to my place and took a seat. I loved her fiercely from the moment I saw her, how confident she was in her long tousled wig, sunken eyes and cheeks, thin spotty torso, and a taxi-driver’s fidgety legs. Narrower shoulders than even an old bonerack like me. What ails you? She asked, jingling with pockets full of pills. I told her my condition, the smokelike frailty of my existence. She let me peruse among her specialities, she was selling pure chocolate, homemade chemo drugs, and whatever was fresh from the Alzheimer’s labs. I wanted a little of everything. She said I couldn’t just take pills, I’d also need the pricey twice-daily intravenous injections into the tailbone and monthly blood transfusions to cure me. After a few sessions with the needles, and getting a chance to talk and touch veins, I could tell Polli saw past my wiki-gen16 to the real me. She asked me what I did for a living now that I’d been fired, and I said that I too survived in a secondary market. I said that whereas her business was in medicine trafficking, mine was the memory market. The antiquities game. That keening in the heart for the thing, I told her. The special thing. The must-have. If enough people keen, the thing itself begins to glow or beat. Consumer aura determines price.
Who buys this junk? She said while helping me with my transfusion.
I said, People on Mars, for the most part.
Then she said to me, Martians take what they like and leave us to die like hogs.
I agreed with her, they are greedy up there. But there’s no use complaining, I thought, because that’s where I’m headed.
Those epically rich island townships they call dubais that speckle the crystal oceans of Mars, that’s where I want to live. After years of ignoring the importance of Mars to my status on Earth, and knowing that Martians are responsible for the conditions we endure. It’s the money they inject into our economy through nostalgia purchases that’s made it possible for me to take advantage of their monopoly over our lives.
I always had a thing for women who peddled drugs, and having always married within a conveniently devout circle, I felt liberated knowing that I could talk to Polli about my health. She also had close contacts among the mafias who operate the Lagrange tollbooths along the interplanetary gravity tunnels between here and Mars. Before her grisly murder I was able enough to engage with some of these militant fellows who profit from the bright stars in our sky. The big orbiting mallships we can even see in broad daylight, they all lease space from the drug cartellites, and they are the ones who really own the gravity junctions between here and Mars.
We married in April that year, and spent eleven months together that I’ll never regret. I’ve had the cancer fourteen times. I’ve had five very natural wives. Before Polli, none of my wives knew of my criminal double life, and if they suspected, we never spoke of it. No one at the Extinction museum knew a thing; once you’re past a certain age suspicion is inevitable anyway; what’s the saying, Don’t trust anyone over sixty? As Director there were things I had wanted to accomplish for the institution, and I had a staff of over eight thousand to ride. I’d been the public face representing an institutional pillar of our social contract to remain part of the natural cycle of life and death. I’m not ashamed anymore but at the time I thought my fear of death and the lengths I went to stay alive contradicted everything I stood for in my social and business life.
The twenty-three Aurochs collectors are all from Mars. Since I was retired from the museum I’ve worked exclusively with Martians. Nostalgia for Earth up there is fervent. Mars worships nostalgia. That lethargic, blue-hued and misty-eyed feeling of lost time is a Martian’s most holy feeling, whole Martian culture guided by nostalgia for Earth. Ridiculous, you say—who cares? Up there they give each other Earth gifts for everything, for birthdays, for name days, for Venus Day, any occasion. They spend more on gifts up there for each other to show off at trifling parties than the averagely educated man earns in a year down here on Earth.
Shortly after Polli’s murder I was hired to do an evaluation of the holdings from the early twenty-second century for a deceased banana-peel energy oligarch named Omidyar and that’s where I found my Aurochs. The Omidyar family owned two of every automobile ever made, hidden a kilometre under the city of Kitimat. His elegant, satin-skinned daughter told me her father estimated that the family owned enough cars—they weren’t certain how many because all the records were on decades worth of hard drives—and easily a billion ears worth of cars – oh, yes, yes, I assured the family (rubbing my chin thoughtfully when really it was to conceal my drool), the sales would easily be enough money to get your children to Mars; the dreary part of my job was to update and confirm the collection in the database. In the will, the Omidyar patriarch stipulated that the automobiles be auctioned in separate lots, that is, even go so far as to split the pairs and sell each individually for greater profit to share among the living relatives. An excellent idea, I told the grieving eldest daughter, one of six blood relations with rights to the Omidyar clan’s fortune. I was all alone for miles in every direction with some shah of shah’s complete car collection. And there behind a concrete wall hidden in its own garage at the far end of the bunker, an off-the-line 1999 Daewoo Aurochs in pristine condition. There it was. For a moment I didn’t even want to recognize it, my mind wouldn’t let me believe it, besides the light was dim, the surface of the thing was soft from dust, and too pristine to be true. Then I felt it in my heart, soon the feeling was in every vein, that all my life’s work was worth it, worth every crime, oh, boy, that perfectly thermophallic shell, the muscular hips, period accurate chrome spinner rims, five percent tint on the windows, big smiling chrome grille, those brightblack rubbertree tires, to say nothing of the hood ornament, God, it all made it so unbeatably terrestrial, loaded down, a volcano with a burning lava red chassis.
I wrote a popular post on the phenomenon, species vanish and then are discovered alive after decades or centuries with no signs. The Lazarus Taxa is central to the philosophy of Extinctionism. My Lazarus Taxa was cherry red. Bloodred interior leather. Cherrywood wheel. I mean I was sobbing. I was on my knees. I pressed my slobbering face against the hood and even after centuries that bus still tasted like gasoline. I cried and cried and it echoed in the vast underground bunker. The Omidyar family owned two of every automobile ever made. Two of everything, but they only owned one Aurochs.
When I scanned and rescanned the databases, the Aurochs wasn’t there. No, I thought, I’m wrong, denying my impossible good fortune. I feared there might have been a paper copy made of the collection from generations ago—and indeed there was a small office inside the Kitimat bunker, and in it I found a rusted metal file cabinet and a janky ringbinder with a handwritten list of six thousand cars dated to 2101. I came to the page where I saw the Aurochs. Written in pencil, my god, pencil, very faint graphite shale on the legal pad. I simply dusted over the page and the letters 1999 Daewoo Auroch vanished leaving no trace whatsoever. Not satisfied, I crushed the entire pad of paper as if it had been a clump of ash lying in a fireplace.
THE EVAGINATION OF MY LAZARUS TAXA
I decided I would not keep the Aurochs. I decided I would not sell it either. Thinking about Polli’s murder helped me decide what to do. My anguish, my loss. And my wife Coleco, and Melvin, my siblings, and everyone dying from easy things we used to cure with a poke or a pill two hundred years ago. Instead of cherishing the thing whole I set about dissembling the SUV for greater profit. At first I could barely touch it, all my faculties resisted, and yet over a period of some months – still in mourning – I dissected the beauty. I pulled it apart entirely. I took my time. And lay every last piece separately on the floor. Then, quietly and carefully and biting my knuckles, so to speak, I sent them off to the market like the faces of lovers. The first piece I sold was the four-wheel drive. It fetched me a great deal. I sweated and stressed and I pawed tearfully over the exhaust manifold before giving it up. Kissed and fondled each babylike airbag.
During the past decade I’ve put the four-wheel drive on the block, then the oil pan, and the A/C condenser, but not the hood ornament, not yet, I can’t put that to auction yet. I told colleagues I found pieces over the years on my obsessive flea market hunts throughout the junk cities and had been keeping them for my retirement fund. No one would dare investigate those sepulchrous alleys where I said I made my finds. And selling two or three parts every year, so discreet, on the black market, to keep that line open. The handmilled steel turbo unit had to go finally, to bribe a Martian minister of real estate. The odometer: Seven kilometres. Fetched me enough ears to feed a billion. Even the little oxygen sensor fetched an impressive price. Passenger-side seatbelt. Not the hood ornament, not yet.
Why did I do it — pluck to death this rare SUV? I asked myself that every day and still I tore the car apart. I dithered and wept and fought my instincts. Then I ratcheted out another bolt. I remembered the words in the will of the man I stole the Aurochs from, never for a moment did I forget who rightly owned the SUV, and how Omidyar advised his heirs. I counted myself one of his heirs. What I took was on par with a gallerist’s fee—fifty percent. One Aurochs was worth equivalent to all those thousands of other vehicles, if you took it apart. Sell in separate lots, split the pairs and auction off the collection one by one for the greatest profit. The words in the will rang in my head. And tearing the Aurochs apart like I did, I felt Omidyar’s spirit on my conscience, practically speaking, his will being done through me. I got a chilly, lonely but triumphant pleasure in having seen through my greatest self-deception and finally giving in to my addiction to life. Perhaps memories of my anaemic childhood got woven up in my mind with the story of the rare and exquisite Aurochs SUV. How else could I find strength to debone the angel I’d used to guide me until that day if I hadn’t realized that my life meant more than its? How else could I afford Mars? Mars; with health care I can go on.
Butchering the Aurochs was no easy task. I was constantly telling myself, This Tip-tronic keeps me alive, this dual climate control keeps me alive, these chrome nudge bars keep me alive. When I take the hood ornament to Sotheby’s, I can only imagine what that great silver aurochs dashing to his feet will inspire in collectors, with the scorpion pinching its balls and about to strike the soft flesh of the belly, as if to remind buyers to step on it, act fast or be overbid. I estimate the sale of the ornament alone buys me a seat among the elite, the healthiest, most aspirant and discerning Martian class. I am near the top on a waitlist for a unit in a Cape Verde highrise overlooking the general hospital of the Victoria Lake dubai on Mars. So keeping all this in mind, I cut apart that ox car like a pomegranate and sold every last red pebble. I remember Omidyar’s testament, written in the spirit of the age of the Aurochs.
by Lee | Filed under Fiction
Here’s a short story I wrote back in 2005 called Conjugation, first published in the arts magazine Border Crossings, and then, later, reprinted in the Journey Prize anthology, volume 18.
As I awoke one morning from uneasy dreams I found myself back in grade four. All summer I’d dreaded this day and now it was here, the new school year. My clock alarm went off and I patted the snooze button and just lay there with my eyes closed—6:45 a.m. and I had to get up and go to grade four. It was somehow uniquely depressing, grade four, sort of inescapably elementary. I didn’t even want to yawn and admit the day had begun. Still half asleep, I had a vague sense that some rude sunlight was coming through a window. I was getting nervous now. My bed seemed the only safe place. I didn’t rise when the snooze was over and my alarm started making a fresh little electronic scream— Well, I can admit it now, that’s when I finally started to cry. And no one came to dab my cheeks and give me a glass of orange juice before I got out of bed, and no one pulled back the drapes—first warning me to avert my salty eyes from the sun—and no one started my tub running so it was hot and ready by the time I came to sit in it, and no one helped me pick out some nice clothes from my dresser, or iron them, or button them, or tuck them in for me, and no one made me breakfast, not even a bowl of Mini-Wheats, not even a banana was peeled for me, and no one drove me to school and kissed me on the cheek and wished me a good day. No. No, I did all that. And I drove myself to school, and I asked the secretary in the principal’s office for permission to use a vacant spot in the staff parking lot because of course there was no student parking at Whispering Pines Elementary School.
I tried to appear nonchalant while the children of grade four gawked at me with no sign of shame—in what grade did a kid learn about shame? I looked at their soft faces and smiled in an open and hopefully well-adjusted way. Fact was I was totally nervous. I was sweating in my new t-shirt. I scanned my new classroom, nodding serenely at a poster of a monkey on a snowboard. Running along the tops of the walls was a series of cards with a picture of an animal on each and both their French and English names written below. Cow, Vache. Sheep, Mouton. Cat, Chat. Moose, Orignal. Hanging from the ceiling, a hand-made thing explored our vast planetary system in styrofoam and construction paper and multi-coloured pipecleaner. I suppressed the urge to sob.
I always hated children, even when I was one. I preferred the Bible to Sunday cartoons, cheese to chocolate, privacy to community. I kept to myself in school. I made basically zero friends.
Kids, the teacher said. She guided me by the crook of the elbow to the front of the class. I could tell by the civilized look on her face she’d been warned about me in advance. This smile she used on me she practiced maybe all summer long. Her hand in my crook like that, and her voice so affected and brave like it was, I felt a bit more in control and a little more helpless, and I thought I might be able to learn something from a woman like this. Kids, she said, this is our new classmate. His name is Lee.
I stood there.
I’m Ms. Durant, she said, and shook my hand. She was young, maybe a bit older than me, it was hard to tell. I was a foot taller than her.
Hi, I said. Nice to meet you, I said to the class. And then I took my seat.
We learned arithmetic in the morning and that helped me relax. We did some math exercises in our cahiers, and then a benign pop quiz, a kind of refresher course for those pupils who’d been in grade three last year and not working for an academic publisher.
I finished my quiz and sat facing the window, to daydream. A white cloud so white that I couldn’t quite believe it rolled by not too high off the ground.
A girl behind me tapped my shoulder. Her name was Melinda, a pretty little religious girl (she prayed in a loud whisper before the pop quiz). I looked back and she handed me a note folded into a kind of origami. It was one of those origamis I remembered being very popular one year and then just as quickly forgotten. There was a time when I could’ve made this miniature paper alcazar as well or better, but it was a forgotten art to me now. But it was odd to discover that even after I’d grown up, those same elements of childhood I’d experienced still existed in the here and now. Grade four was the origami grade.
I opened the note. It read: We want to know the answer to number 6.
When I put the note down on my desk I looked up to Ms. Durant, who was busy at something. Only after reading the note did I remember what kind of infraction I’d made simply by reading the note. God, new to the school and already the little buggers were trying to get me in trouble. I looked at my classmates. They were waiting to see what I’d do. No one was working. Immediately it became clear this was a test, my first of the year. Would I help them, my little co-pupils? Whose side was I on?
I shook my head, no. Of their cheating I would have no part. The origami I flattened as best I could, and put inside my desk.
While they all worked, I went back to my daydreaming. The cloud was gone.
I checked my watch. It was almost time for recess. An elastic bounced sharply off my ear and a round of vindictive giggles went through the room.
Shh, Ms. Durant requested.
Soon we moved on to fractions and the kids started to look antsy.
My next mistake was at recess, before I was even outside. This was an old school, a brick tower built in the nineteen-twenties with what felt like a hundred portables sprouting from it. Portable classrooms: the ghetto of education. Our class was lucky to be in the school proper, where two sets of old doors exited to the playground, one set for boys and one for girls. Well, without even noticing I went out with the girls.
This is the girls side, a little grade-oner explained. She pointed to the girls washroom. See?
I’m sorry, I didn’t know.
What are you doing here anyway? She asked. Shouldn’t you get a job?
Never you mind, I said.
Once outside I sat on a looping metal bar meant for bicycles and watched kids play. A mafioso of girls stood in a shady corner and discussed private matters. I noticed Melinda—the girl whose desk was behind me—standing by herself at her own set of bike bars and I thought how interesting and desirable she’d be someday, eventually making a zealot very happy. There was a game of tag in the field she seemed to regard with mild amusement. Some boys were crouched on the ground looking serious and getting dirty. Recess was only fifteen minutes. I couldn’t figure out why they thought so much could get done. Kids and dogs are alike in that they are so docile, but if you frighten or confuse or keep them penned up in cages too long they turn vicious. They need to get out as much as they need to be in. Or they kill you.
I thought I no longer needed recess but when the school buzzer went off and I had to go back in to class my whole body clenched. Meanwhile a scurry of impromptu races made the kids all vanish back into their classes in under a minute, with me still walking to the door.
The principal gave me an emphatic pat on the shoulder, How are you enjoying your first day back in school?
It’s fine, Ms. Wilson. It’s fine, thanks.
We walked through the boy’s door even though Ms. Wilson was a girl. It’s a good class, she said, but they all know each other, so don’t be alarmed if it takes a while for them to warm up to you.
I think it’s cool kids in grade four still make origami.
She nodded, Oh I know. Grade four is great for that kind of thing. Can I give you some advice?
Teach the boys a code, make up a language, and send notes in it.
Don’t tell Emma I told you that.
Oh, pardon me: Ms. Durant. Ms. Wilson laughed, Ha ha, and walked back to her principal’s office.
I sat at my desk and conjugated verbs. After a long time deliberating I finally got the nerve to put up my hand and was astounded to feel my eyebrows raise too. Some kind of juvenile reflex saying, Please, do you see me?
Can I go to the bathroom?
Ms. Durant checked over her shoulder to the clock. It’s fifteen minutes until lunch. Can it wait?
I suppose it can. I turned my head back to my desk, a little flustered, and a bit sore in the bladder.
She went back to the lesson. I ran, I run, I will run, she said, writing it all on the chalkboard. Meanwhile I tried to cross my legs but the desk was too low and my knee wouldn’t go over.
Before lunch, Ms. Durant handed out a form, counting out how many in each row and giving the forms to the person at the front to pass back.
Have your parents sign these and bring them back as soon as possible, she said. No one seemed to read what was on the form so I chose not to either.
I didn’t know where to eat, and somehow found it unbearable to follow the other kids into the lunchroom, so I went to my car and ate in the back seat. I’d made myself a ham sandwich. Even so I peeled the top slice of bread away to look at the meat inside, and said to myself, Ham sandwich. I ate it, disgusted with myself for such a boring lunch. I broke the straw from my juice box and tore it out of its wrapper and pierced it through the foil top and squeezed the juice into my mouth until the box was as flat as could be. I finished off two Oreo cookies and tried to remain calm. Only a few hours left and I could go home.
School let out at 3:30 and everyone scrambled to the cloak room to put on their jackets and by the time I got to mine everyone was gone except the other pariah in the class, a boy named Derek who looked like a snowman made of skin. He was tying his laces so slowly a kind of hatred welled up in me. Even the academic press staff at their most irritating didn’t make me feel this kind of rage.
I understand you drove here, Lee, he said to me. He was a mouth-breather. He looked so deeply stupid.
Derek, I said.
Derek is my name. That’s right. He regarded me, up and down, like a boy. I loathed him.
It’s true, I drove here, I said.
I have missed the bus again, he said. I always miss the bus.
Now I have to walk home. He groaned. I have to walk through the high school park.
Why not walk around it?
It’s the short-cut, he said. He peered at me as if I was dense. No way I was giving this pudge a ride.
Derek, I have to go. I’ll see you tomorrow.
At home that night I had a bit of a conniption. Making dinner I’d thrown a chicken breast in the oven and put on the timer. When the timer went beep and I opened the oven door I realized I’d never turned on the heat. Then I freaked out.
Aaaah, I screamed. The hair on my head was really on the verge of rising when the scream abruptly ended. I sat in a chair and rested my face. I took a deep breath.
I said to myself, Good god, I can’t go back there tomorrow. I just can’t.
I unzipped a compartment of my backpack and finally looked at the form Ms. Durant gave us that day. The upshot was we needed consent from our legal guardians for an overnight trip to a forest. I signed the damn thing immediately and crammed it back deep into the fuggy bottom of my bag.
The phone made its sound and I contemplated not answering. How crazy was it to not answer the phone? The odds of it being someone phoning to ask me how my first day back in elementary school was were so unkindly high that I knew if I didn’t answer it, that person, whoever it was, would almost certainly know I hadn’t answered the phone for the very reason that I didn’t want to talk with them about my day.
Howdy, I said.
There was a silence, time for me to conjure up an image of my girlfriend sitting on her futon, having finished her own dinner and flipping through a fashion magazine with just enough energy to envy the women she saw there, and now deciding to be the first cruel person to care enough about me to ask how was elementary school.
How did school go today? She said it with a calculated lack of emphasis.
Fine, I said.
Fine? That’s all?
I dunno, I said.
Did you just say, I dunno? I could hear the magazine fall from her lap. She was standing now. Her place was always a ghastly mess, the lair of an otter obsessed with prized clamshells. She liked to look out the window when she talked on the phone, always exempt from the private reality behind her unctuous lifestyle.
So, how was it?
Baby, did you know they still make origami in grade four?
What? She sighed rather too heavily. Don’t you see why it’s so hard to connect with you? You push me away with all this nonsense.
Ms. Durant: I was thinking about her, in all honesty. The way her lips slanted down while she thought, her slim gentle hand brushing chalk from the blackboard with a yellow shammy, her laugh which started as a squeak and finished in a silent giggle.
It was an old desk. I got to know it well. The wood split at the corners and on its face someone long ago had carved the word KISS into it, and then later, maybe someone else, had filled the letters in with red ink. I respected desk vandalism. I also liked the green pole that connected the desk to the chair. When my hands felt too warm I cooled them on the metal.
During art class all the boys except for Derek got together and drew these incredibly detailed blueprints for buildings. The buildings could never be made, no logic to them, but wonderful all the same. I watched each boy take a portion of a large section of unrolled newsprint paper and start to work out plans for their wing of this enormous building. They steadfastly used rulers and incessantly sharpened their pencils. A boy named Chris was in charge. He requested revisions if designs didn’t satisfy criteria he invented.
A fuzzle never uses stairs, Chris said. Make that an escalator.
What’s a fuzzle? I asked.
Chris didn’t answer. He chose to sharpen his pencil and work more closely on the main entrance.
Alex, another boy whom I admired for his huge mature forehead, turned to me and said, A fuzzle is a perfectly round animal that is one point one eight sixth of a millimetre.
An incredibly tiny animal. Does it have eyes?
Yes, it has eyes.
How does it move?
Without taking his concentration off his work, Chris finally answered me. It uses very sensitive feelers. It’s covered in very sensitive feelers. It looks like hair, but it isn’t.
What does it eat?
Datum, another boy replied.
Datum? What’s that?
Chris put his pencil down, as if every moment I took away from their work cost him money. It was like talking to someone in the marketing department of the academic press where I worked. Datum is invisible speckles of floating meat, Chris managed to say.
I decided not to ask any more questions about fuzzles. I really wanted to be invited to work on the fuzzle project, but for now I was working on something a lot more mundane. With the only pair of left-handed scissors I was dutifully cutting out construction paper and making a two-dimensional garden.
I thought I’d try something I remembered from school. I took a jar of pins from the cupboard and started piercing them through the thin first layer of skin on the palm of my hand.
Hey, guys, I said. Check this out. I held my hand up and they gathered around to see if the pins would fall.
All the boys quickly had pins in their hands. They got an idea to freak out the girls with their newfound nightmare, and naturally, being girls, they started to make a lot of screamy noise and Ms. Durant came over.
Take those pins out of your hands, she said. Who gave you the bright idea to do this? Chris?
No, Chris said. No, it wasn’t me, it was Lee.
As I pulled pins from my hands, Ms. Durant stood beside me looking baffled. Thanks a lot, Chris, I said.
I’m a little surprised, she said.
I’m sorry, Ms. Durant. I remembered doing this when I was in school and thought—.
Yes, well. Not every tradition needs to be passed along to the next generation.
True enough, I said. When she walked back to her desk I hissed at Chris, You snitch.
Alex said, Yeah, Chris. He rolled his eyes at me, as if to reiterate to me that Chris was the worst kind of friend—a true rat. Someone was taking my side, I couldn’t believe it. I gave Alex a wink, and a smile, and he liked that, but really I was holding back tears of joy.
At home I was able to work the oven, and when the phone made its ridiculous sound I answered without hesitation.
We learned about Louis Riel, I told the director of the academic press.
Don’t underestimate the skills you’re learning. Be aware of the skills.
I’m totally aware of the skills. I’m meshing with the skills.
I’m serious, Lee. Please don’t think if you come back from this and nothing has changed that you can expect to keep your job. We’re a team, right? A community, Lee.
I wanted to tell him to piss up a rope, or to especially fuck himself, but I was predictably obsequious. We are a team, I said. I understand completely.
Anyway, he said, we’re hoping to have you back, all refreshed and such.
We left it at that. I sat in front of the TV for the rest of the evening doing my homework, drinking box wine until I was so drunk I couldn’t brush my teeth.
School was fine. Melinda and I talked occasionally. I asked her what church she attended and was irked to learn it was something Mormon. I had no idea they’d migrated so far north, I said.
Yes, it’s true, she said.
What do you do for fun? I asked.
I don’t know, she said. We have Bible school, that’s where most of my real friends are.
My real friends don’t go to this school either, I said.
After it sunk in, she giggled, and we shared that little laugh. The way she tilted her head, crinkled her cute little eyes, I could tell this poor little girl, this nice little Mormon girl, was beginning to have her first crush, the first of, I estimated, three, before she would utterly stamp away all her nigglings of religious doubt and sexual curiosity to marry a drab Mormon four and a half years older than her. She’d always remember me though: The first boy to show her some charm and attention like no boy in the fourth grade could ever express, Mormon or normal. Too bad I was twenty-eight and she only nine.
Buoyed by the strength of a young girl’s infatuation, I decided I was going to displace Chris as the alpha male of the classroom. The little monkey king with his fuzzle worship. Chris was going down. I wasn’t going to be his replacement, though. My plan was to make Alex the new leader of the boys. Alex and his wide, sage forehead would rule all. His brains and my adulthood: We were unstoppable.
My plan to overthrow Chris happened quickly, such is the way kids do everything. At an academic press it might’ve taken half a career, but in elementary school it took all of an hour. Basically after one lunch when Alex and I kept to ourselves, Chris began to fear he was losing Alex as a friend, so he started to buddy up to me in class, and went so far as to invite me to work on the fuzzle project. I think he figured it was better to have me on board than to lose Alex, who might initiate a mass friend exodus. But it didn’t matter. It was like checkmate whatever move Chris made.
Your lines aren’t straight enough, Chris muttered to me.
Sorry, I said, and sharpened my pencil. I gave Alex a wink and we smiled at each other. On one of the balustrades I was working on I added a rococo finish Chris approved of, not knowing it was actually a graffiti of code. Alex and I had invented this great code over the lunch-hour and already using it to undermine Chris and his fuzzles. My code translated simply as, Chris farts.
Alex replied by adding a wing of the building named, again in code, Chris is a farter.
There was a problem though. I was failing. Over Christmas break I spent time with my girlfriend’s family, chatting aimlessly or watching television shows I hated. My girlfriend ignored me even more than usual, moving me aside like a whining door. But I couldn’t concentrate on anything besides my low letter grades anyway. I excused myself for long stretches of family time just to hide in my girlfriend’s childhood bedroom and stare anxiously at the report card I kept hidden in my back pocket. I had one gold star, in music, because I already knew how to play the recorder. My only comfort came in knowing I wouldn’t have to show anybody my marks. My own parents were already dead, a depressing and shameful relief.
We’d begun long division in October and no matter how much I studied, it always left me confused. What was with that little table, held up by one leg and a number underneath it? The footrest of a number beside the table and a vase of numbers somehow (how?) appearing on top. It was a total bafflement. And then on a crucial social studies test I’d mistakenly written that Lois Riel was born in Edmonton—what was I thinking?
The worst was Ms. Durant’s comments. Unlike the other kids in my class I had a career to think about. I was sleeping poorly, I was constipated, and I related it all to my marks. I lay in my girlfriend’s childhood bed, underneath the chenille blanket and sour yellow sheets, and looked at my report card without blinking. Must learn to play fairly. Causes mischief. Does not play well with others.
In January, during art class, I broke it to the others. Alex, I said, I don’t think this wozzle compound is working out.
What do you mean? he said. Since Alex and I found ourselves in a leadership position there’d been no more fuzzles. Chris was devastated but too fearful of alienation to quit altogether, and so, with Hamish and Steven, and even dumb Derek, Chris agreed to work on a project Alex outlined as a giant war compound for wozzles, an even smaller creature than a fuzzle, perfectly cube-shaped and deadly poisonous, hovering just above the earth on a magnetic force field.
I could feel Ms. Durant nearby, and hoped she was listening to the conversation. I said, Wozzles prepare, but for what? What do they plan on going to war against? Now, Chris, I said.
Huh? Chris lifted his head up. He had so little energy for wozzles that his pencil was nothing but a tiny soft nub and his portion of the compound was a dull, hazy mess of wavy lines.
This wozzle here is deadly poisonous. All you have to do is touch one and you die. What kind of defense does the fuzzle have?
Chris thought for a minute. I was worried he’d say it had no defenses, a victim of never knowing a predator. But I knew if this kid was smart about anything, it was fuzzles. Finally, brilliantly, he said, A fuzzle has death-ray vision.
Boys, I said, it’s time we had a sleep-over. I think the fuzzles and the wozzles are about to go to war.
Over our ham sandwiches and detwizzled cheese tubes we sat at a large table in the lunchroom and laboriously developed this big survey map of the terrain where fuzzles would meet wozzles. Since both of these creatures were so tiny, the terrain we decided on was a vegetable garden. It had the rugged earth terrain we desired as well as lots of varying flora and underground dimensions, potatoes and carrots, which could act as cover. We all became detailed agricultural draftsmen, with Hamish showing some astonishing work rendering cabbage and broccoli. The job of critical appraisal was restored to Chris, and once again we were a tireless and coordinated group of sharpened pencils and vanishing erasers.
Then in gym class a girls against boys dodge-ball game ended in tragedy. Forgetting completely about how much stronger I was, I whacked Melinda in the face so hard with the volleyball her whole body swung through the air and she landed in a sobbing heap on the ground.
Oh my god, I’m so sorry, Melinda.
That’s it, said Ms. Durant. Detention after school, Lee. You should know better than to throw that hard. Are you okay, Melinda?
My face! she wailed.
Melinda was sent home sporting a gruesome bruise on the entire left side of her head. That afternoon was a misery. I felt her empty desk behind me, like a kind of apparition, breathing without breath down my neck. Her voice interrupted my every thought. My face! I heard her say. My face! My face!
I thought it’d make me feel very guilty, said Ms. Durant, to force a grown man to write lines, but frankly, I’m a little concerned. Didn’t you read what I wrote on your report card, or do you not care?
I didn’t answer right away. I was writing, I will not throw so hard in gym class ever again, over and over on five pages, double-sided, single-spaced.
I don’t know, I said. For a minute there I totally forgot I was an adult.
You gotta know how important it is for me to pass. My whole career is riding on me passing grade four.
Ms. Durant wore a little green sweater and she had her hair cut recently so I could see a pair of adorable rectangular silver earrings, and I wanted to comment on them but it didn’t seem like the most opportune time. She said, Well, you’re attitude is very inconsistent.
My heart is in the right place, I said. I have a friendship with Melinda none of the other kids share with her. I hope she’ll forgive me.
She’s a Mormon, you know.
We were silent. I continued my lines. She leaned back against a desk and I couldn’t help but kind of desire her.
She smelled of cocoa butter. I wrote a few more lines.
Do you mind if I ask you a personal question? I said
She blinked. Go ahead, she said. I might not answer it though.
How was I going to ask this, I thought, and no sooner had I delayed than I became really nervous. Contrary to popular opinion, sometimes it is wise to speak before thinking. I’m wondering if, I’m curious if, well, ha ha, do you have a boyfriend?
She bit her lip and thought, intelligently, then finally, with melancholy, she said, A yes or no answer is unavailable at this time.
I went out and bought pijammas, not having owned any for close to fifteen years, just for the occasion of this night’s sleepover, and my finger was at the doorbell when Alex’s parents answered, both of whom I’d met at parent-teacher interviews. A very dormant couple from what I could tell. I had bags of chips in my hands, flavours I didn’t even know existed, like Chicken Fried Rice, Guacamole, and BBQ’d Steak. In my back pocket was a rolled-up Playboy—I thought it about time the boys learned something more about life than just wozzles and fuzzles.
I’m sorry, Lee, Alex’s father said in his pale and exhausted voice, like a man suffering from near-death ennui. He said, We’ve decided we can’t allow you to attend this sleep-over.
Don’t be absurd, I said. The conversation already seemed infinitely familiar from my days at the university press as I learned to dodge the scholarly cudgel of my halfwit boss.
You’re an adult, the man said. It sets a weird precedent. I’m sorry.
Don’t be sorry. Just let me in.
His parents stepped aside and I removed my shoes at the entrance. Sit down, I said. They sat down on their couch next to one another and his mother clapped on a living room light.
Look, I said. Alex is a very talented and intelligent young boy. He does well in school. You shouldn’t limit him.
I don’t think it’s appropriate for you to give us advice, his mother said, on how to raise our son. You’re a grown man and you met him as a classmate.
Don’t let that reflect on Alex. Here, I said, and pulled a little transparent pink box from my pocket, opened it. These are ear plugs. I thought you might end up needing them. Also, I gave my girlfriend your number, so if she calls, I’ll be in the rumpus room downstairs.
Things got started kind of slowly on the designs for the war because the boys paired up and pretended to fuck each other after poring through the Playboy. They called each other by the names of girls they adored. Oh, Jane, Hamish exclaimed from atop Steven. Oh, Mary, Steven replied. It was puzzling but I sympathized, and chose not to disrupt their fantasies. Little kids experiencing love for the first time. It was lewd and adorable simultaneously. I sat somewhat uncomfortably in a far corner and rummaged through old video games that looked about as joyful as a collection of broken phones.
At about 8:30 p.m. I decided to go upstairs and call my girlfriend.
You’re calling me from a sleep-over, she said.
Think of it more like a retreat, or working late. We’ve got a project on the go.
I’ve started seeing someone else, she said.
This comes as a complete shock, I said.
I called Melinda after that, concerned for her health.
You’re calling me from a sleep-over, she said.
It’s this fuzzle versus wozzle war. We’re working late. I called because I’m worried about you and wanted to apologize. Are you okay?
We gave me a Tylenol. Have you heard of that?
Tylenol? Yes, I have.
Yes, so I had one of those with ginger ale.
I am very sorry, Melinda.
It’s dodge-ball. It happens. God has forgiven you and so me too. Who is at the sleep-over?
Oh, you know, I said, the boys.
Is Chris there?
Could you do me a big, big favour?
Could you, she paused. Could you tell him I like him?
My eyes kind of bugged out. Sure, I said. You bet, Melinda. Bye.
Oh, no! she squealed and giggled. Okay. No, call me tomorrow, okay? And then she hung up with a series of fumbles.
I went downstairs and studied the progress we’d made on the war. We were pretty much ready to start waging. I sat down with Chris and told him the news. He went so pale I thought he’d faint.
Well, do you like her? What should I tell her?
I like her, said Chris. I do like her, he said again as if it really had never occurred to him before. Let me look at that Playboy again, he said.
It wasn’t until Sunday I remembered we had our class field trip into the forest on Monday. That evening I went over the camping checklist, interrupted by the blurting sound of my phone.
We’ve filled your position, the director of the academic press said.
I’m completely shocked, I said.
We got busy. We needed someone.
I’m sure you were very busy. An academic press is a busy place.
I’ll give you a good recommendation.
For what? Grade five?
We took a big yellow bus into the forest. Us boys all went and sat at the back and when we drove over a serious bump the littlest ones, Steven and Hamish, would pop so high their hair would brush the ceiling.
Whee, they said in unison.
Careful, Ms. Durant yelped out over the megaphone.
Chris and Melinda sat in a seat together a few up from the back and our spy Alex reported they were holding hands but not speaking very much.
It’s often more complicated to talk, I mused. It’s better they just enjoy each other’s silence.
The forest was about thirty minutes from the city and included two large square fields separated by a column of trees, like a long, extremely narrow forest. It was very unnatural. We set up our tents in the line of trees, and made hamburgers and hot dogs over open fires and sang songs I forgot even existed and the kids didn’t know. Ms. Durant had a guitar and she sang and played at the campfire until it was time to go to bed. Her voice was beautiful and I became so relaxed. No job, no girlfriend, away in the forest and only a song to keep me from falling straight to sleep under a night filled with gold stars.
Alex, tucked into his brown bag, looked so small and new, I was reminded again of how much older and how much taller I was than any of my friends. Not that I wanted to be young again, or even small, but there was nothing in me that yearned to rejoin the world I’d left behind last September. The phony world of so-called grown-ups. I no longer considered myself back in grade four. For me this was, by virtue of all I’d gone through since I was nine years old, an entirely original grade.
Next morning Ms. Durant and her teaching partner announced we’d stage a game of capture-the-flag, and would split up into two teams. The morning air was just beginning to warm, and by the time we had the teams organized we were down to our t-shirts and the sun above us was a gleeful yellow. I was on the red flag team, with Alex as my leader, and it turned out that Melinda and Chris were both on the blue team—likely to get lost in the trees until a winner was announced. Our teams split up, each taking a field on either side of the column of trees, and went off to hide our flags.
Leaning on the wood beam of a fence, I watched as the game began and kids started racing off in all directions, climbing into bushes and getting lost and coming out covered in thistles and sap being chased by someone on the opposite team. Every now and then a kid would get tagged and put in our prison. Thanks to his wozzles, here on the field, Alex was a confident and brutal tactician. My pulse raced when I saw a child come close to our flag, but what with the incident during dodge-ball I was less than eager to get in there and start frightening kids. Better we lose than I smack someone else upside the head.
Ms. Durant came over and leaned on the wood beam with me.
Hello, she said.
Your kids are great, I said. You give them such good guidance. Look how well they play compared to those kids from the other class.
It’s true, they’re an energetic bunch. And how are you?
I’m enjoying sitting here and watching, I said. I’m proud of our strategies. I’m giving plenty of moral support.
I didn’t know what else to say so we fell silent and watched the kids. Almost foolishly, I wanted my team to win, but it was looking desperate. I counted my team-mates and figured we had little more than our defense left.
Ms. Durant said, I hope Alex is somewhere close to that blue flag, because if he’s in prison your team is sunk. You’ve got no one else.
What do you usually do with your summers? I asked her.
Me? Well, I go to the art galleries and museums and talk to curators and whatever. I read art magazines and history books.
That sounds really great, I said. I like galleries, too. I like museums.
She smiled. Just then, Alex came out of a row of trees, huffing, his face bright red. He saw me standing here and looked furious.
What are you doing just standing there? he screamed. We’re getting clobbered. What am I supposed to do?
Well, run! he told me. You’re the fastest person on our team. We need you. I’m only one wozzle, he said. I can’t do everything myself.
I don’t know if I should, I said.
I looked at Ms. Durant for a hint. She was so beautiful, but she was my teacher. My grade four teacher. I thought, If only—if only—. And we stood there, on the other side of a fence from the kids in my class, and I really didn’t know what to do. Could I kiss her? Should I run?
Go on, she said. Your team needs you.
You’re right, I said. I gave her a light pat on the back—it was an impulse, but it felt good. I hopped over the beam and ran over and met Alex on the field. I was a secret weapon. I put an arm on Alex’s shoulder, my ally, my little friend. I kneeled beside him.
Okay, boss, I said. What do you want me to do?
Get that damn flag, he said.
I took off. And fast, I tell you. Because that’s how you play the game.
by Lee | Filed under Fiction
Here’s another short story. This one appeared in the visual arts magazine where I’m a contributing editor, Border Crossings, in 2011. It’s the story of two middle-aged siblings lost on their father’s ranch in Alberta.
Who do we mean to visit? they wondered on the approach. Really, our father? Or is he such a changed man we hardly count as his children? Siblings, yes, on a thread, they were still that. Jules was in the passenger seat of the rental sedan looking for bison behind the tall wire fences strung along the highway. And Shannon, the younger one by five years, driving the car as if it was one, a bison. (I changed their names to protect the family.) The Avis rental bison, Jules called her driving style, slow and skittish grazing along the highway. That’s enough, Shannon said. With her nose to the windshield, her chest pressed to the hump of the wheel, fingers gripped on the horns. He urged his sister to lean back and relax. I won’t till this trip’s over, she said.
Smacked in the face by wrinkles and grey hairs and ambivalence all at once in a single year, a swift decisive blow to what remained of her youth – thirty-one, that was a bleak year for Shannon. Possessions kept being divided up, month after month. Her fiancé put things on hiatus, then her mother moved to Invermere to be closer to the amethyst and radium, and to cap it off before Christmas her father retired early from his work on the Queen’s Bench, sold the family home in Calgary, and bought a bison ranch in the foothills of the Rockies.
Shannon felt a little torn apart ever since. Unwholesome for general consumption. But five years later and after one decent love affair, it was just this lingering sense in the back of Shannon’s mind of not being sure of anything. The sight of bison set her teeth on edge. The thought of eating bison made her belch airlessly. Even to see her brother, after nearly a year without contact, was a little off-putting.
Her older brother Jules was in a foul funk, too. He believed he saw right through their father’s bison ranch to what it really was. These hoary livestock were the defenses of a prep fleeing from some social crisis of dubious origin. Professional or private blow-out with society? Jules wondered. Or both. Or neither. Shame or fear or a woman, something, a bribe, blackmail, a secretary, something drove him off the Queen’s Bench, Jules guessed.
They saw fenceposts carrying the heavy handcrafted wood signs for his ranch. But no sight of an entry gate along the acres of fence running beside the highway. Shannon parked on the lip of the highway and the siblings scurried under the fence in a convenient spot and carried on by foot over through the scrub and tall grass.
Big Bison Tower Ranch, said Jules. Dad took me for lunch to some atrium pub in a bronze-glass skyscraper downtown where 2nd Street meets 2nd ave. I really thought he wanted to congratulate me in advance on becoming senior manager at Esso. Two guys sharing some memories, his of botched trials and me some HR bungles. His prosecutors and his juries and me saying how it’s like me swaying my staff. Tell a few droll off-the-record stories from divorce court, drug court, violent crime. He makes some Hearst jokes. Me make some Trump jokes. Nothing criminal. Old time whatever stuff between us we can say without raising a hackle. Everything goes well until he leans over very paternally and gives me a pat on the cheek that numbs me like a hockey slapshot. I can’t feel my face for it. I’m incredulous. I feel like I’ve got palsy. He pays for my steak and two cocktails. Then as we’re leaving he says it’s bison he wants to tell me about. Bison burger’s big money, he tells me, and more tax shelters than a pair of gloves. I said to him, Dad, buffalo, you’re a chief justice, what the hell are you talking about?
Meanwhile I haven’t seen a single bison or buffalo, said Shannon. Where are we?
West of Eckville.
After the siblings walked in silence for another ten minutes Shannon said, There’s a difference between bison and buffalo?
Jules spat to prove it.
Another hour hiking the foothills and no house in sight, not so much as a fence. They were in deep. The interior acres of their father’s ranch were carpeted in plenty of thriving grasses, silky waving wheatgrass and burly white-tipped fescue, and smattered with tiny wildflowers that coloured the sandy pools of bunchgrass. Black currants were caged in pointed violet-tinted thistle, hidden under tall nicotine yellow whiskers of fringed brome and oat grass, all a bit slippery underfoot, growing semi-wild.
Shewing apart a cloud of mosquitos with her many-buckled purse, Shannon said, He really trapped us this time. We walked right into his cage. Penned us in. Don’t be fooled, dear bison, wherever you are, he sure likes to let you think you roam freely, but then suddenly you find out he’s let you hang out to dry. Well, he knows I’m not happy. I told him on his voicemail, Did he expect me to drop everything and come live at a freakin ranch? Shannon skipped ahead over some sharp yarnballs of a red-veined plant. I mean, really, is sand pouring out his ears? Is he that out-of-touch with me? I am on the board of the Calgary Opera, that I love. I invested a lot to start up my career as a facilitator. And my friendships are important to me.
I know. I told Dad the same. I lied to him that I was too busy to uproot. I said I was studying finance because I took a foxy bank manager at HSBC on a date the day before, said Jules, rubbing his bald spot. Am I going to get sunburnt?
I didn’t lie to him, Shannon said. I am busy.
Rolling horizon, gentle climbs over and between brow-hills and lip-hills and chin-hills wrinkling off the frosted Rockies to the west. But still no sight of bison, or an eight-bedroom brick and marble bungalow with a saltwater pool the shape of a kidney inside an equatorial greenhouse, near a traditional red barn, and maybe a half dozen corrugated aluminum industrial farm buildings. This, according to the website.
And so they walked for another hour and twenty minutes. They walked until it was foolish to turn around. But also highly questionable to keep going.
Some debate was had between the siblings, got a little anxious, a little heated, a little like old childhood times, as to the question of what the fuck they should do. They were lost apparently, really badly. The argument was never over who was to blame. That was obvious, Dad and Mom were – it was whether they should follow the creek out or go to the top of the next caldera.
Or turn back for the car before sundow-ohohohwn, said Shannon bursting into a few tears at the end and said, I’m sorry, but the last three years have been so awful.
I know it, said Jules.
He punted a dusty cobble of dinosaur fossil off the toecap of his leather shoe, and the siblings watched with a sporting interest as it tumbled down the hill before him.
He said, Maybe one of us can get reception from the top of that hill and we can call him, we’re lost.
He can’t make me eat a bison, she said, kicking her own fossil to see whose would travel farther; …hers.
Jules kicked another prehistoric shard down the hill, a colourful little shell of opal ammolite, and this bauble went a shorter distance than the first two.
Jules yearned for the least pastoral thing he knew. The Western Club. Calgary’s oldest private club. The amenities, blingy and deluxe, the concierge immaculate, lockers, ballrooms, gymnasiums, climbing walls. The Western Club and the thawing conversation of its waitresses. The Western Club and its homemade chutney on the side of every plate. Specialties that offered such warmth to a middle-age bachelor lost in the snow. He took his Blackberry out of his jacket pocket and looked for messages. If he could get service, he could call someone, but who? Oh, to text a good old friend or a ripe new online dating connection to meet him for a rough game of squash followed by a light supper in the members-only restaurant. Members-only drinks in the lounge, members-only indoor mini golf, wifi, robes, condoms, steam rooms.
But this pasture was members-only, too, and more exclusive still, Jules realized. His father’s continental influence and wealth pushed Jules over the tall fence to the Western Club the same as it brought him here, to Big Bison Tower Ranch.
Shannon saw it all in her brother’s face and said, You should eat more whole grains. Listen to your breathing. We walk an hour and it sounds like you’re gargling Scope.
It’s been two hours plus according to my wrist. And you? I stopped seeing you for raquetball months ago. What do you do all day? Are you doing treadmill? Who do you talk to? Never me. Do you even call Mom any more?
Mom goes on about her crystal logic. I’m struggling to figure out who I am and Mom’s trying to nullify herself and vanish into the oneness. How can I phone the oneness? Unity is her thing, cosmic heart bleeding. Bugs me. But all Mom really wants is to eat yogurt, Shannon said, she picked up the ammonite shell her brother had kicked, looking at its colours, admiring the opal’s spiral of coppery reptilian scales.
Radium is not as cynical as this place, don’t you think? Jules said.
Eat vitamins. Do cleanses. Enemas. Week-long fasts. Mom’s idea is to fart without shame and rub crystals on her forehead, not hang out together or talk to us. She moved to Invermere to be closer to pools of radiation. That’s nuts. Look at her, she wants to purge. Retreat, mutate, purge, us, purge herself from humanity. She’ll only show up here if it can be in the form of a rainbow.
Who can blame? I feel for her, Jules said. Dad’s whole planetoid gravity sucked so many people to him. Did we ever have a family dinner without guests? He made her sick of humans. I sure inherited none of his talent for mingling. I once saw Dad drink from the lipstick rim on a woman’s wine glass as she watched, in front of spouses. And me there, too, Jules threw his hands in the air, I was just a child and I knew. He’s greedy. He made himself believe he was getting away with it, with everything. He was so generous, he was indestructible. He knew good people up and down the country. He loved to be asked for a gilded favour. This ranch is the result of too much gilt, I’m sure.
The siblings almost reached the sunny stream at the bottom of the valley when they realized something was seriously wrong. The creek was moving along quietly and idly, that was fine, but so was the bunchgrass and sandstones. Bison. From a distance the bison grazing were indistinguishable from rows of dark dry blades of fescue and thistle. Shannon saw out of the corner of her eye a giant shit-brown shag head raising up from the briar with its clean white horns pointed directly at her – blinked and growled with a huge long pale pink Kiss tongue shaking out, dripping saliva. Gaahh! The bison said and made an about-face and casually trotted away from them. Shannon felt the blood drain from her face and feet, and for a second she thought she might faint. It was too late for the siblings to turn back. The herd surrounded them, roaming the whole valley eating and curiously vocalizing, snorting and bleating about their small visitors.
Just act natural, said Jules.
Fear is natural, damnit. Any one of these things could kill us. Fuck, there must be hundreds.
I mean act cool.
Gaahh! from another unseen bison.
The two middle-aged children walked softly through the graceful ancients, each bison in its own iron mask, all that fur imprisoning the mind of a chilling, wise and cunning chief. So Shannon imagined. She saw a lot in common with her father in the wrinkled oval eyes of a bison, as if each bison was a heavy-smoking brown-bearded judge cursed to the lowest courts, seated on a giant bench of dreadlocks and muscle.
Seriously would trade all my gigabytes for a 12-gauge right about now, Jules said.
Oh, what an expression, said Shannon finding one bison blinking at her very soulfully. She was a wallowing cow bison seated on her rump in the dirt with her shaggy front hooves ready to push up her whole big powerful body at a moment’s notice. Her belly was spread out and her sour milky paps lay exposed, brightly greased by rough feedings. A ginger-haired calf tottered around her mother on frail cinammon sticks for legs. The calf whined and bleated and shivered its little body straight to the tail.
Shannon was not enough of a threat to her calf, the bison decided, to merit rearing up.
Hello, Shannon said. The creature studied Shannon carefully, heavily. What is it? Shannon said. What do you see? Tell me. What am I supposed to do, Mother bison? Tell me what to do.
The sight of her milk pearling at the teats made Shannon think of her pearl-white silk pijammas, logging on to monster.com every afternoon grazing for facilitator jobs with zero luck, not going outside her personal valley once the entire day, and never changing out of the pijammas. She looked into the bison’s clay face with its dark-skinned heavy-lashed eyelids and soft wet almond-round eyes pushed far back on the hairy face. A set of wide grey apelike nostrils steaming over a clownish mouth grinning huge square teeth. Cairn weighty head shawled in brown curls. Her bearded neck waddled on the muddy earth under her chin as she idly chewed the green thistle.
Then the bison turned her head to look at Shannon through the other eye for a second opinon. Curse of the supreme court judge, Shannon said in chills.
At the top of the next ridge a single bison kept watch beside a lodgepole pine. As the siblings climbed the hill the sentinel stamped his feet at their boldness. Big as a truck, he started honking open-mouthed epithets at them. Laborious tongue-lolling vocals trying to stall them, Gaahh! before gallopping off to scout from another closeby hill.
They saw the pine was planted at a high point with a clear view of the entire pasture over countless hills to far off in the west where Shannon parked the rental car.
Jules let out a Gah! of his own. The ranch house seemed to appear in front of them as suddenly as the bison did in the valley. At this elevation they were a few hundred yards to a fence, and beyond it, the brick and glass sprawling house of the website. They could even see a couple in front of the mansion standing beside a blue pickup. A man came from the driver’s seat of the truck, and a woman brought a steel tub from an outdoor kitchen centred around a stainless steel bbq grill. The siblings were starved.
Walking towards the scene, the siblings witnessed the man use a winch off the end of his pickup to hang a dead bison by its hindquarters. In a matter of seconds the pale pink balloon of the stomach, the size of a yoga ball, disgorged from a slit the man made down the animal’s belly, and after a few tugs and cuts, followed by all the blue and white and black smaller organs amid a great final gush of dark red blood. All of it was caught in the steel bucket and reeking, humid with skatole and bile and grass.
Hello? called Shannon meekly. Ha ha.
‘The fuck, you crazy, come through the pasture? the man said with a sneer into the sun, shielding his creased eyes with a bloodied rubber glove. Where’s your car? I’m Brent. He waved a butcher’s blade at her. As you can see I’m his ranch hand.
We got super lost.
I won’t shake your hand, Shannon. You’re just in time for burgers though. Hope you’re hungry.
The woman came up and surprised Jules while he considered the weird polite smile on his sister’s face, put her hand on his arm and squeezed, I’ll shake your hand. I’m Pasty. Pasteur. After the cow scientist? Surprise, I grew up near Willow Creek on a giant milk farm. My parents are industrial milk producers? What I love about working the bison industry is nobody wants to talk about milk.
I’m Jules, he said. But I grew up in Calgary around judges and civil servants not on a journey to the centre of the world. Or around bison.
Pasteur laughed politely. Cool. You’re lucky you didn’t get stamped to shit. I’ll see you for burgers, Jules. I gotta go throw this blood on our fertilizer before the stench makes me retch on your neck. A nice fatty cut, Brent.
Nothing but marble, said Brent.
Their father’s voice came from behind the truck: More marble than the floor of a courthouse, Brent.
Yes to that, said Brent, ripping off the bison’s fur coat with the short square blade and not a drop more blood lost.
Their father took Jules’s hand and pat him on the back to hug him, and greeted his daughter with the same customary hug, no one could avoid this tradition or improve upon it. They said a few words and eyed one another. Their father looked twenty years younger. His face was tanned and lean. He had lost much of the judge’s stomach and gained some width around the shoulders. It was cold and he was short-sleeved.
Oh, I just remembered. Shannon took the ammonite shell out of her purse. Jules found this in your pasture, she said. Do you know what it is?
He took it from her and looked at Jules incredulously, his eyes widened again when he looked at his daughter as she smiled to see the same face as the mother bison, his insolent, knowing, expectant, desirous, impressed gaze. It’s ammonite, her father said. It’s very rare.
It’s yours, Shannon said.
Thank you. I’ll show you inside once we’ve ate, their father drawled after he pocketed the gift from his children. Here now, he said, and Brent handed their father a rippling pink filet with a thick edge of shining fat and a membrane that enclosed the entire cut except for a single corner of exposed flesh. Let’s go grill, he said and while Brent finished the carcass, he walked his children to the quad bbq under heated parasols.
All flesh is grass, their father said. Twelve hundred acres of what traditional Blackfoot style pasture would look like, you could say. Their father started to explain his business while hefting the fatty bison filet back and forth from hand to hand as he walked and talked. Fences and horses is my big difference from the Blackfoot. Close to six hundred head, rotating five herds in pens. Hire a hundred fifty decent men once a month thereabouts to move them. One whole pterodactyl found, now in Tyrell Museum. Fresh air blowing straight off Mount Merchison every day. Year-round tan. Full moustache grown. Cowboy hat settling in. Their father was starting to joke now, but they weren’t familiar with this side of him, so he explained the latter half of his operation. I court chefs. This is my marble here, grass-fed sirloins. Sell Big Bison Tower burgers, sausages, and steaks to restaurants stretching from Seattle to Saskatoon. Plus a secret burger recipe, he said and waved his hand over to where Pasteur stood.
Jules watched Pasteur wiggling her butt as she mixed fresh seasonings for the bison in a bowl pressed against her belly. Then she found drinks while Brent ignited the propane on the grills and laid out cooking tools across a little metal surgical table. The five of them stood on the stone patio with alcohol to drink, overlooking the rolling fields. Shannon’s car was somewhere under the shadows of the Rockies. Deal with that tomorrow, Brent said. I’ll drive you. Missed your exit’s why. Shannon’s head was dizzy from the day and her appetite.
Jules combed his fingernails through his hair, eye on Pasteur. Now that he was no longer so lost and knew he’d eat a bison burger or two, his thoughts turned again to the loneliness of his days spent at the members-only Western Club. He wondered if Pasteur was his father’s lover or Brent’s or could she be waiting for him? Nervously, he distracted himself with the Blackberry.
Make yourself useful, said their father and set Jules to pushing the bison chop through the old cast iron black meatgrinder to make raw burger. Pasty, dear, he said in a funny sweet voice, have you got that bowl ready for meat? Giving ohis son the mixbowl and its eggy aromatic coagulate, Stir so the meat is all together with the secret recipe, Jules. Nothing worse than a clump of secret recipe in a burger patty. Mix that burger evenly as you can.
Ok, I will. Jules put some shoulder against the hand-grinder, and with a little push, threads of meat spooled out in broad lengths like hair, mottled red and white, into the bowl. A few minutes later he was stirring together ground bison and secret recipe to make enough Big Bison Tower burgers for five. It was late summer and the sky was a blue-green, stained a dragon purple. The evening shadows frosted grass. Shannon was eager to accept Brent’s offer to go find her a suitable parka from the house, and saw this as her chance to follow him inside for a peek at her father’s new home before dinner, thinking, Life seems to promise families that what they see in each other, others do not see, and can never see any of what others see in themselves.
Marsha Lederman wrote a profile of me and the book for the Globe & Mail. Click the picture to read the article.
Here’s a few screen captures of the websites of the four literary festivals where I’m so-far scheduled to appear at in the upcoming months October and November to read from my novel The Road Narrows As You Go. The Vancouver Writers Festival, the Ottawa Writers Festival, Toronto’s IFOA, and the Victoria Writers Festival. Click on the images to go to the actual sites for more details about these readings and the many other awesome writers.
by Lee | Filed under Fiction
I wrote this short story about a muzzled environmental scientist in 2012, first published over at Five Dials, and I thought I would reprint it here in celebration of the discovery of the old Franklin ship in the Northwest Passage.
The ice shelf I went to study was almost two thousand miles due north of a place like Manhattan, and roughly the same size. Don’t get the picture I requested such a remote assignment. I didn’t. With all I’ve got going on at the Alberta branch office for Northern Affairs, overseeing two dozen slatternly, distractable young career bureaucrats, plus the fact I’m an old man with an old man’s point-of-view and a growing family of inlaws and grandchildren, it never dawned on me that out of all the other younger more mobile, more ambitious staff available I would be singled out to survey the melting ice.
You know I’m more of an administrator these days, I explained to the committee chairman over the drinks he invited me to one evening. We were at a hotel bar in Edmonton and the wind across the parking lot outside was sending snow past the windows at a perfect horizontal. The year was 2011. I told him I hadn’t been on the ice in years, not since the Nineties.
But you were our unanimous choice, the committee chairman told me. As his hand squeezed my shoulder, he gave me a wink of regret that I’m sure I was supposed to interpret as congratulatory.
The committee chairman told me the deal: Spend the entire summer on the glacier, write a full report of my findings as to its general condition, its beaches, and its fragile terminus. That was all. Here was an even more unsacrificing environment that required my attention ahead of my petty, squabbling, vindictive, and ultimately elusive family. And, really, what did I care about my selfish problems at the office? All it took was a handshake in a Four Points Sheraton and I became completely removed from all those seemingly inextricable affairs that had made my life at work and home so uninhabitable over the past few decades.
I knew going in that I would be isolated on this forty-five hundred year-old frozen shelf. I knew that the ice shelf was no longer needed to support any human life. The Inuits who used to hunt there every winter for hundreds of generations now found safer ways to get food than on the shelf. But it never occurred to me or obviously to anyone on the committee that the ice shelf itself might detach from the continent that summer and be set adrift, and that I would be aboard this strange island.
Take us to the second steppe, I told the pilot.
I heard him respond in my headphones, Yep, just point to the spot you want me to drop this bird.
As the helicopter peaked over the landscape before beginning its sidelong descent, I could see the ice shelf for what it was, how it spilled out from the eastern side of Baffin Island and floated out into the Davis Strait in Arctic Ocean like a giant snow-covered popcicle, a twin popcicle, twice as long as its sticks. This most famous ice shelf formed south of the Iquarlirtuuq wildlife sanctuary and the Barnes ice cap, pushing snow and ice down between two Precambrian prongs of steep granite mountain, filling in the long fjords of these peninsulas with solid glacier edging year after year further and futher out into the frigid seawater with stunning confidence and total impassability. But it was nonetheless a long popsicle of snow and ice even with its own mountains and valleys and lakes and rivers, wild slushy terrain, home to fearsome acclimated creatures, polar bears, caribou, walrus. It was something to behold. And now the ice was falling apart.
Summer was steadily inching the temperature up to zero. All I wanted was to stake out a decent basecamp: protected from polar bears. My first day I dug out a small snow shelter called a quinzee from a deep mound of hardpacked snow and made do with that and sleeplessness for the time being. Then, a day or two later as I was walking, I marveled at a halo of blue atmospheric light in an area of the snow up a fair distance ahead, and I shoed my way towards it. I heard what I thought was laughter and watched a flock of snow geese pass overhead like men on their way to a formal ceremony. As I approached this lamplight under my feet, the sound of the snow crunching and squeaking with solidity as I walked calmed me. I came to the where the snow was tinged with this soft even light, a robin’s egg blue above what I took to be a good cave, and fell to my knees to listen. Recalling my young and tumble graduate school days, back then I would have put my shovel in right then and there. I was a safe enough distance back from the lip of the second steppe, which I noted during our landing in the helicopter was calving large blocks of snow regularly down a sheer cliff half a mile high. Here as well the terrain was becoming craggy but it appeared to be totally secure. With an axe I sought a nearby entrance to the cave, and within the hour had found my way down into it and learned of its true grandeur. I pegged my tent under a beautiful vaulted proscenium as high as a Broadway stage all made of packed firn snow and ice that was shallow enough at its ceiling to allow the nightless sky to fill the cavern with an incandescent blue as though my new residency was submerged in a heavenly water, while all around me curtains and pillars of icicles glittered in the shadows as the cave progressed narrowly down to unknown trickling depths. Fresh icewater drained idly from the south wall into a small bowl at one side of the cave which I even used like a faucet and sink to wash.
I recall it was the day after I had my camp all settled and I felt prepared to do some research and reportage when I heard a crack I thought was a gunshot. Nothing moved. The report was as loud as if someone was right outside the entrance to the cave firing a shotgun directly at me. A part of me wasn’t convinced that it was a gun even as I climbed to the surface to see who was there. Naturally nobody was. The snow was once again a sublime blanket of silent white that not even the shadow of a single goose displaced. After a time I allowed myself to dismiss the incident and carry on with my work as if nothing major had happened, even as the shelf began to drift away from the shore.
Maybe I was too familiar with all the sounds snow can make and I wasn’t enough disturbed. Nothing surprised me in this ambient landscape of sere white, a lifeless white without fault or promise, blinding as fire at its horizons and monochromatic in all directions. I grew up on the northern prairies. But I knew the glacier shelf was different than land after the glacial retreat. This was a land that was not a land. An unlandscape more like a mirror of the sky.
In the endless musical cycle of the seasons, the fermata of winter grows more brief every year over Earth’s northern composition, I wrote in my report. There is no rest for the ice today. Poetry? I can only say I was lonely. On a clear cloudless afternoon under the smoldering sun, I alone heard the old house of the ice shelf creak and groan and swell and gasp, pop and whine for hours like it was being battered around. The north of my youth, its barrenness and silence, was replaced by the agony of constant erosion, of deep underlying tensions and humiliating collisions. The crack was only the first of many grisly noises I heard, but it was the one signaling the separation.
The committee budgeted for a two-way radio to be my partner over the summer. It was some kind of miracle, after my stubborn colleagues and family, that I could charge my radio’s electricity simply by winding it up like a pocketwatch in order to listen to an hour of public broadcasts of classical music, or to call my man with the helicopter if I needed supplies or other assistance.
I said I would radio the pilot at the end of five days to give him a status update, and so not long after I heard the ice shelf break from the continent and I began, unwittingly, to sail out into the ocean, I reached my pilot, and, because I had no idea anything had changed, told him my basecamp was coming along fine. Weather was balmy. I didn’t keep him on the line very long. I knew besides the helicopter, the pilot also operated a bar and nightclub with live music out of a doublewide RV trailer he had plugged in at the nearby town of Pangnirtung. Pangnirtung, with its small population of Inuits whose ancestors lived in the area for over four thousand years, added to that a few government-sent carpetbagging Whites there for a season, all living in houses on piles.
Talk loud I can hardly hear ya. Everything going according to plan out there or what? the pilot shouted. In the background on his end of the line there was much laughter and conversation and music.
Lap of luxury, I radioed back.
What’s that you say?
I forgot Kit-Kats.
Kit-Kats, eh. That a favorite of yours?
Never mind, I said. I’ll radio when I need fresh supplies. Bring a carton then.
I considered writing my wife a letter to send back with the pilot when he next flew in: I was sent against my will to the summer ice, the letter might begin, but where would it go from there? You left me in the winter for a hot zone. I imagined her in her pashmina shawl and sandals, flanked by male escorts in penguin suits, standing in the middle a million protestors in Cairo, mobilizing the women.
I did report on all the noises I heard, meanwhile, including the false gunshot. I reported that there was seldom ice floe around the shelf, just clean clear ocean that was tempting to swim in. I reported on all the rivers and lakes on the surface of the ice shelf and of the flumes of livid bacterial water that I saw disappear into a labyrinth of crevasses. Great lakes of freshwater were said to exist under the surface. I reported on the warm water in the potholes where I did decide to swim. I reported on the occurrence of calving at the first and second steppes and the waterfalls that gushed down them. I do recall how the sun careened about the sky. I chalked it up to summer at the pole and how the strange seemed ordinary here. I hadn’t considered the shelf was turning. My compass was the landscape.
Day by day I was beginning to fall into a kind of easy bliss that made the hard work feel more like a vacation, hiking for hours amid cold nothingness as though in a trance, so absorbed in finding ways of articulating my impressions of this colossal, atavistic ice shelf that I forgot why I was alone. I put aside the miseries, treacherous and accidental, of home, family. I reported on whatever wildlife I saw, such as the birds, or when I took pictures and wrote a lengthy account of a solitary polar bear stranded on a nearby iceberg like an arctic Crusoe. And the look on his face as he raised his black nose to the wind was beyond pitiful, I wrote, as if the polar bear was not sure whether to swim off to safety or continue to ride the iceberg as it took him farther out to sea.
Rereading this entry months later and looking at my pictures, I realized the polar bear was the one on the mainland and I was the Crusoe. I was adrift. And the look on this polar bear’s face was of pity, but, and also confusion – his entire kingdom sailing by, and me on it.
By the time a month had passed I was too far out to sea to reach the pilot by radio. I tried but never with any luck. The weather was confusingly mild. The sky was a hot jellied azure without cloud. I got a tan. So I saw no reason why I couldn’t get a radio signal. My porridge and other camp meals were eaten.
More than the warmth of my family, or the climate of the office I middle managed, I found I craved a certain brand of chocolate candybar from the dispensing machines at the office of Northern Affairs that I didn’t think to pack any of. At the same time the helicopter with my box of Kit-Kats would have been at a loss for where to land his cargo, since his destination had vanished, this missing treat was all I could think about. This crispy candybar composed of its segmented wafers coated in chocolate and seperable into single finger-length sticks, which found no equivalent in my dwindled food rations, unfortunately, was what I missed the most about my life. To break off and eat the Kit-Kat sticks. Instead I was sucking on icicles and trying to slingshot to death a snowgoose.
That second month on the ice shelf made me ecstatic with the sense of adventure. Cut off from radio contact with civilization was the kind of mild threat I can say, honestly, I almost looked forward to before leaving. The superabundance of wildlife this time of year and my rifle made a hunt something of a non-issue, more like shopping. The ice shelf felt like a big vacation from my responsibilities at work and at home. I hardly needed sleep. The twenty-four hour daylight on the ice shelf gave me a tireless mental endurance. After long hikes of discovery during the day I found time to read and write in the evenings. Evenings without night. Midnight would come around and I would sit happily for hours gulping back sealmeat and writing my thougths out while the sun hung like a golden pendant in a rose sky almost as cold as it was warm. To whomever, I wrote, A jewelled sun frozen for hours and hours at the horizon but never touching down on to the blue velvet ice before making its ascent once more and touring the skies all day. The arctic solitude of never-ending daylight had its thawing effects. As I watched the spring rivers clumped with frazil and rime pour into the haptic sea, I didn’t see it as anything more than the runoff of wild ideas passing through my mind, and the sound was just my sobs of relief. And the barnacled Mona Lisa faces of the grey whales as they breached in the ocean seemed to swim backwards and forwards simultaneously as thoughts tend to do, and the fat, teardrop-shaped walrus who squealed and farted and swam amok along the shores catching fish between their whiskers were all just my dirty thoughts during this brief fit of poetic madness in which I believed myself to be a kind of Shackleton of the mystical North.
So it was unbeknownst to me that I was aboard a giant iceberg, moving steadily out to sea with every uncounted minute. The metallic blue waves I photographed and reported on were not lapping at a stationary coastline as I assumed, but the sides of an enormous oceangoing vessel the seals were chasing after.
At the outset I knew there was no doubt the steppes were of importance to my report. There was no way for me to tell beforehand in what precise way the steppes would impact my report and so I spent much of my time obsessing over them, fearing them, even while my original assignment became irrelevant.
All I knew was that I needed to see the northern shores of the third steppe or the committee would find my report incomplete. Each steppe was itself the result of an immense quake along three fault lines that appeared in the last decade of the twentieth century, going straight across the shelf east to west. The quake created sheer cliffs that dropped nearly a mile and, after years of good sun, ran raggedly and serrated and with waterfalls like three chipped-tooth stairs for an ice giant, mountains forming and vanishing at an accelerated pace.
The third and last steppe I feared the most and avoided the longest as it was the closest to sealevel. Its drop into the ocean was less sheer and more sloped as its terminus collapsed into a thick slushy floe of sticky water called polynya, where thousands of puzzle pieces of runaway iceberg loitered. On the third steppe, temperatures in the winter plummeted to seventy degree celcius below zero. Nothing moves. The day I chose to make my first visit I wanted the weather to be below zero and not warmer. I did not want to encounter any sinkholes or avalanches.
Would have been years ago as a bachelor when I was doing field work in the North and I first witnessed the Northwest Passage when it was frozen over and millions of acres of ocean were joined with the last steppe of the ice shelf, no different than winter in the prairies where I was raised. Snowblanketed waves, frozen as they stand. Long flat slabs of ice like billiard’s tables broken into pieces of snow called firn. Firn like untouched children’s playgrounds. Firn like the walls of motels or prisons. Open holes in the firn near the floe edge where narwhal and orca came up to breathe. Then, early Spring and the first floating pancake ice, then slush, the polynya glueing together the icebergs. Some icebergs I saw grew to the height of skycrapers, as manifold in design as military citadels, and among their flotsam, thousands of smaller icicled snow gazebos emerge, hundreds and thousands of neighborhoods made of ice floating precariously on top of the sea. And for the imaginary man here to report on nothing and able to endure the lunar temperatures of winter, narrow pathways ferruling through snowdrift valleys mazelike in a forbidding white world. A world unknown even to itself, and every year anew. By summer this elaborate outer sheath of ice got dashed and broken apart and slushed away by the sun.
As the walrus and seals and whales and birds arrived, I watched as, like a vagabond ghetto, shattered parts of the ice floe set off in smaller and smaller groups with icebergs disappearing into the chopping waters until once again only the ice shelf remained. Locked to our continent since the Ice Age, its shape has remained relatively constant until recently. Now even the core was fading.
I used to still meet smiling families of Inuit who thrived off the preserves of the ice shelf, camping near the areas that melted early and exploiting the breaking floe. I always wondered how the Inuit stayed so much in love in such small dwellings under these harsh conditions and pitiless terrain, when my own family still found it so hard with all our good fortune to agree where in the world we should all meet.
At some hour during the continous stretch of day that was midJuly on the ice shelf I cut off my beard and washed my sweaters, and feeling determined to set out for the third steppe, I charged up my radio and for hours and hours all I did was listen to the waves of static or asked if anyone could hear me when I spoke into the microphone.
When the radio was turned off or uncharged I often sat and talked to the radio regardless. In time I saw more and more face in that radio and saw less and less radio. Two speakers like bug eyes on either end, in between them a channel dial that was a long mouth full of teeth, and a string of buttons under a knob you twisted that made a sort of perfect nose and moustache. I mused over my radio’s face for lack of a moon in the sky.
Isolation provides a person with a startlingly clear picture of their own inner landscape, I told the silent, uncharged radio, as we assayed the uniformly white surface of the ice shelf from the peak of basecamp.
I feel comfortable around you like I can tell you anything, the uncharged radio told me.
I never considered suicide, but I have dreamed of a place where I could not exist. Now look where I am. Nowhere and nothing, I said with a shiver.
People respect me, the uncharged radio confessed, but inside I feel like a total a fraud.
Am I better off alone here instead of taking care of business back in Edmonton?
I faint at the sight of rust so if you see any corrosion don’t say a word to me, ok? said the uncharged radio, just promise me if you can you’ll do something about it.
Man versus Environment, that’s what it all boils down to, doesn’t it? I said.
Radio versus Man, the radio said.
Is that how you feel? I asked.
Don’t listen to me, the radio said, I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.
So I shut up, too, turned the radio on, and dialed around to various stations of white noise hoping to find anything, classic rock, Russian news, until both the radio and I fell asleep.
My style was nothing heroic – I roped off every fifty metres as I approached the cliffs of the third steppe, so that when I fell down an icy fissure hidden under a layer of snow as thin and crumbling as storebought biscuit soaked in tea, I dangled by my harness with a chance of surviving. Pulling myself up from the chasm took the better part of an afternoon and when I got to the top I wept and dry-heaved for what seemed to be the first beautiful minutes of darkness and stars since I had arrived.
By the time I reached the jagged, messy terminus of the third steppe I was snowblind and exhausted from panic and I thought I might find some shelter in one of the weather-formed quinzees. Who knows how long I was out. I awoke bleerily starved and pushed back out into the wind and sunlight to the shore to kill something. The ground here was sinewed by miles and miles of melt-ice lakes festooned by phytoplanktonin blooms as thick and green as pea soup. As a graduate student I came here to study these cyanobacterial mat communities, and my predictions for their influx sounded almost satirically dire then, but still what lay before me was more stark. Today these pools stretched across the ice like psychotic stab wounds that sank hundreds of feet under the surface. Strewn along the edges of these snaking ponds were the remains of thousands of broken shells of dead pteropods. After my first visit, I named them potato chips of the sea for how popular and abundant these tiny winged snails were as a basic food for so many oceangoing species.
I used to call this place Qigiktaaluk but now I just called it Baffin. I was standing up to my knees in a frosty cove of murky green waves and dead snails, all set up to shoot the prettiest little grey and white spotted sea lion for dinner when a hand came down on my shoulder that for all my wits I could have sworn was the hand of the Northern Affairs’ committee chairman’s, and froze me solid.
Don’t move, he said. He took my rifle from my shoulder and turned me around so that I could see who I was dealing with.
You can come with us, the man said. He wasn’t the committee chairman at all thank god, but nevertheless someone of his seniority. We just loaded up if you’re hungry, the man added.
He backed away a few feet and I got a look at his sun-reddened cheeks and nose, and his wild white eyebrows hung down over his wireframe glasses like icicles and his old watery blue eyes shimmered cloudily with grey and pink muscles like they were fisheyes. There was a dent in his chin so deep it looked as though he lost part of it to frostbite. He was dressed in what he obviously thought was a cool combination of black parka and animalskins for a jacket. He wore frayed acid-wash denim cutoff shorts and his pale pink knees had knuckles like worn-out fists and his feet were shoved bare in to black spiked workboots. Along with my rifle he carried his own storebought poleaxe. Fit, hale, unprepossessing, and standing right in front of me, he looked my age. He was a lot older. He had on a pair of self-shading bifocals that he pushed up the bridge of his nose as a matter of habit. Behind him I saw there were another five or six others, men and women of various ages, dressed in similar make-do wardrobes from the shambles of mountaineering and hunting expeditions updated with ragged skin and furs, bone and baleen. Carrying animals from a hunt. And all wearing glasses. I was wearing my own prescription self-shading lenses.
Let’s go, show you the way, he said.
I need to get my radio, I said with a thumb pointed to the second steppe.
Never mind your radio, the man said. That’s old news. You’re here now, might as well get a last look for yourself.
What you’re here to see, right? The terminus.
I fell in line with the others as the old man showed us all back up through the crag via ice switchbacks that led away from the shore singlefile out of the cavity of this hulking ruin of snow and ice and back to where I’d sheltered. Now the colours in the ice shelf ran from blue to bloodred as the sun skated sickeningly low against the lip of the horizon.
You’re not Inuits are you? I asked.
The old man eyed me. You expect to find us speaking extinct languages, talking about the sun as though he was our uncle. And here I go and tell you we are you – some of us are Aboriginal but we are all scientists. All called to report on the condition of the terminus on the third steppe of the ice shelf.
My name’s Doctor Gavin Stott, I said.
He said his name was Craig and he was from Minot, North Dakota. But some of us, he said, like Lucy Peltier and Oscar Weaver are more your locals.
I recognize the names Peltier and Weaver. Aren’t they glaciologists?
Craig said, Peltier came at glaciers via atmospheric physics I believe. And Weaver is a geodynamic modeler specializing in paleoclimatology. I am the plain old glaciologist around here. Don’t want to admit it, said Craig, but I still recall ’92 as the year of my lucky third wedding. What a sylph. Half my age with a doctorate in cryosphere-hydrosphere-lithosphere interactions, eh. Please imagine how happy I was. Thought I was dead in heaven. Then came nineteen-ninety-three and the triple quake on the ice shelf gets me sent here from Northern Affairs to scribble a few words. What a load of dung.
I told him I came to visit in the 1970s and uttered a few noncommittal words of my own about where I was the year of his report’s deadline.
We all got jobs in ‘93. Some better than others, the man said and started walking ahead of me, a good lead of ten steps with no apology. I had to follow trying not to look as if I intended to catch up with him.
On average I’d say you happen twice every year. I come across a professional trekker with her sunburnt nose pointed to the third steppe, drunkstepping snowblind and about to die. And did you see? We broke off from the mainland in June and are now drifting southeast.
I did not know that, I said and took a deep breath. But now that you mention it, that would explain some mysterious things.
Yes, starting with a great cracking sound like a canonblast in your backyard?
Yes, I said,…and that, too. That, too.
Many hours later I was staring into the spectacle of the little fire burning inside Craig’s shelter thinking about home. Our dinner had been around a large camptable inside a stretched igloo the group built for communal meals. I drank a boiling cup of fish soup or two and my fill of caribou. The conversation was all about the fact we were floating out to sea, and where possibly to. Some of the scientists imagined us docking at Ellis Island, or down the Rideau, or as far south as the Panama Canal. No one seemed to show any fear however that we were going to sink. After a dessert of candied arctic char, Craig invited me to come join him and some others to sit by the firepit in his beautifully done quinzee. These yurts, snow burrows, and firnmade geodomes they inhabited were all thrown together by a fierce winter I knew to have a recombinant power the likes of Liebeskind or Gehry. The third steppe was a panorama of a million panes of shattered firn ice, firn ice all covered in a thick coat of rimely snow, as if a mammoth snowmade tower had imploded here, and under this concrete-like debris was hidden a community of natural quinzees inhabited by a dozen or more people, each hovel appearing behind a different entryway.
Craig’s was a spacious eleven-hundred-square-foot cabin of slabs of firn with a loftspace designed with a king-sized bed, and a firepit in the centre of the living room on the main floor. I watched single particles of snow fall through the manmade vent in the ceiling above the fire as though the stars I could not see in the blue sky were dropping one by one from the heavens.
My children were spectres in the fire and my grandchildren the yellow and orange sparks tossed upwards to kiss the bluesnow ceiling of Craig’s shelter, and now and again I saw my wife in the embers. Here was my family, without a shared continent between us. A wife on the streets of Egypt leading the charge of a women’s rights foundation, followed everywhere by her male secretaries, her suffering lovers. Oldest child stationed by an NGO in Lima, another consulting on pollution in Tokyo and Yokohama and living in Seoul, a third teaching First Nations languages at Oxford. Could I say I was proud, even if none of us got along?
Is that your stomach? Are you still hungry? Craig asked me.
Opposite. Stuffed, I said and shifted my weight back on my haunches looking around the large enclosed space to compliment him on the layout, tools hanging from the walls. Ice tools, like my rifle, that I pictured hanging from the belts of the scientists, before they joined Craig.
How much time do you figure we have till the ice shelf melts? I asked.
Craig sat up straight on his bench and crossed his arms and said, All depends where we sail. We seem to be moving at a fair clip. Third steppe is the worst for wear. Comes to it, we relocate the group to the first steppe where the ice is thicker. The latest estimates say the ice runs more than a thousand metres deep, as in double the height of the World Trade Center. So, any predictions how long we last?
Not me, I said.
Craig thumbpicked his nostrils clean. We might get lucky, he said, and moor nearby off some other peninsula and live out the rest of our lives as if nothing ever happened.
That’s true, I said, and then thinking of something else to say, I added, Oh, I thought I might get my rifle back from you now.
Craig eyed me from under his glasses, not unfriendly-like. And with a voice full of a courteous sarcasm that I know us geoscientists save for dealing with bureaucrats, finally said, If I give you back your rifle, how can I be sure you won’t for some reason turn it against me, or any one of us?
I looked at the old man and said, Because that would be murder, Craig. I’m not a murderer. I’m a climatologist.
Craig nodded and sucked his bottom lip. The firelight and shadowplay across the features of his face made him look ancient and guru. I’m glad to hear you feel that way, I am. But I still won’t give you back your rifle, I’m sorry. It’s just too valuable for the community to risk losing.
But it’s my rifle. Where am I going to go now?
The man who sat down beside me in Craig’s quinzee might have been forty at the outside but he was so big and weatherbeaten he looked my age. His head was tanned beyond expression, bald up top until hair started growing again behind his ears styled in a dark grey beaver-tail dreadknot that flapped against his back and smelled strongly of road tar. He was tall and slope-shouldered, the shape of an atom bomb, and wore a Rolling Stones t-shirt. His bare arms were that prickly gooseflesh of someone who can tolerate the chill because of obesity. Moreover, he was knackered, with purple bags under his eyes. I asked if he was my guard and he told me I wasn’t a prisoner any more than he was. I asked if he had a Kit-Kat then. He told me he wished. I have one cigarette left, he said and showed me. So we went outside to smoke it and watch the sun break out from behind a foreshortened thundercloud.
Told me he was a radiocarbon dater and when he accepted the assignment to come here he was acting Chair of his department at a prestigious university in the city of Waterloo. At the time of his departure, he said his oldest child was a car thief and his wife just left him for someone she met going to AA.
I nodded my head, Ok. Go on, I said. Now I get you.
The radiocarbon dater told me how he was assigned by Northern Affairs to come to the ice shelf and report on what he discovered, but when he got here he found the same thing I did, Craig.
In college we never learned about 1978, when the first glaciologist, Dr. Baruch Craig was sent to the shelf, he told me.
I’m Gavin Stott, I said and put out my hand. I’m a good old climatologist.
The radiocarbon dater shook my hand and said, Stott. Oh, ok, I’ve heard of you. I’m Keeling. Vincent Keeling.
Keeling. The name rings bells. I looked at his face more closely for the imprint of familiarity, something that might anesthetize me to the sight of that asphalt blob of dread dangling off the back of his sweat-ringed neck proposing to be his hair.
Here comes Peltier, I’ll introduce you, Keeling said. She was my thesis advisor when I studied in Helsinki.
But just as Keeling began to open up a discussion, Peltier ran right past us, shouting, Airplanes.
Now I saw other residents of the third steppe ducking into the nearest quinzees for cover. I heard the screams of two jets incoming and the upset climatologists around me only made me want to smile. I wondered if my helicopter pilot was among the search party flying above us. Keeling took one last haul and gave me the roach end of his cigarette. Before running off he put a hand on my shoulder, and with a wink, I took to be commiserating, said, Finish it off.
I hid under the ice.
Hope to see you there, buddies!
You can find out more about the book if you check out the Hamish Hamilton site or Amazon or wherever.
After the reading at Lucky’s, we’re going to go across the street to the A&N Legion for book signing and hanging out.
This Fall, Penguin Canada’s Hamish Hamilton will publish a novel The Road Narrows As You Go, based on these pages. Pictured are six years worth of sketches, early drafts, total failures, revisions, rewrites, and research notes. Not pictured is a final draft, completed about a week ago. I’m about to start copy-editing and I’m curious what changes I’ll make with the Penguin team in the final-final edit. Phewf! Already my head feels a little lighter on my shoulders and aches a little less knowing this is the home-stretch.
Decadence Comics is a Euro / London, UK – based independent comic publisher that’s been going for about ten years now, specializing in a style of science-fiction comic that reminds me of the twists and turns in the short stories of France’s master, Moebius, and Japan’s Akira creator, Otomo Katsuhiro, and in a way, these comics also remind me of Canada’s Martin Vaughn-James‘s early-Seventies graphic novel The Cage, a surreal post-apocalypse published by Coach House Press in 1975 and never reprinted. A fluke connection, as I learn. There’s two main artists publishing with Decadence, Stathis Tsemberlidis and Lando. The comics are all printed / Xeroxed on quality paper and handbound with painter’s tape or spine-stapled. Worth a look. Affordable in bundles and fast delivery — shipping from overseas these days is faster than domestic, I find. Very unexpected stories, too, coolly detached POV, cruel twists, and funny ideas, with a wild intense concept of what science-fiction can portray for us. Future classics about the future. Out of curiosity, I asked them about the movie Prometheus, which seems to divide artists and sci-fi fans.
You can tell a Stathis comic by its controlled use of texture dots all over everything, skin, cement, every surface on every panel is meticulously textured with flakes of pollution, toxicity. His comics conflate outer space exploration with the inner life of the unconscious, alternate dimensions of consciousness, and so good, like grime music turned into comics.
Lando’s style is a sweet combination of gestural drawing and connect-the-dots style computer line drawings, and his stories revolve around lonely rebellious broken androids and vivid documentary-style narratives about lost-in-space military platoons — Lando’s stories flicker between images of another galaxy, and direct references to the Western invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and military alienation.
Both Lando and Stathis take direct aim at the matrix veil covering the Western world’s eyes, blind to our complete immersion in the lie of late-capitalism.
There is a brilliant Stathis comic called Upheaval where he conflates the rioter with the riot police in a psychic science-fiction narrative that makes a portal of the third eye. Stathis is also hellishly prolific for an artist whose every panel requires so much textural noise pollution and mottling — his stories trip between organic imagery, human forms, spacemen, vast landscapes and crystalline shapes acting as maps, portals, and vehicles for extra-planetary inner exploration. Mind lizards, devolution, acid baths are all signatures of Stathis’s comics.
Lando’s Untranslated series is a graffiti-style war between soldiers and aliens that look like emaciated anteaters. Lando’s comic series Island 3 looks prepped to become an epic graphic novel — it has all the existential dread one hopes to read from the best in literature and storytelling. Here is a fast-as-hell Q&A I did with Stathis and Lando via e-mail. The pictures are all care of the Decadence website.
What’s it like where you live?
S- I live between Copenhagen and Athens. Both are very interesting cities.
L- I currently live in the town where I grew up for the moment. Its a commuter town outside of London, mostly built in the last 30 to 40 years. There is a generic style of architecture on my housing estate and some of the surrounding ones which gives it a kinda failed utopia vibe which I still find inspiring.
How many comic artists would you say are working in your Decadence Comics scene?
L- Between 5-10 artists contribute to the anthology. Its just me and Stathis publishing our solo books.
When did you start Decadence and what inspired you to launch Decadence Comics?
S- It started in 2003 when Dave and me were studying animation. It was all these long conversations we had about politics and our common interest for sci-fi films and novels that inspired us to start putting out Decadence.
What’s your drawing studio look like and what’s your favorite tools to work with creating a
S- It a big messy desk with loads of objects lying around. I work with pencils and pens.
L- I sleep, draw, print, make comics, and sometimes make music all in one room so its a mess and in a constant state of flux. I draw on a large lightbox that I built, on cheap photocopy paper with Rotring pens.
Almost all of the comics you publish for Decadence are really coherent and consistent in style and voice and presentation. How long did it take for you drawing comics and coming up with ideas before you found this combination of goods that made you want to start publishing them?
L- My story in decadence #1 was pretty bad…I had always drawn comics but they had been long so I never managed to finish them beyond super rough story boards, or just producing a few pages to begin the story. The Decadence anthologies forced me to figure out much more simpler manageable ideas. There was the challenge of trying to do something in five or six pages. I also started to work in a cleaner line in issue two which I think made my work a lot more readable. I think it was the same for Stathis too as his drawing style was a lot more rough in the early issues, but he gradually started to formulate his clean but ‘noisy’ style.
When I look through the comics you’ve published, a recurring theme throughout them is a kind of science fiction awakening of the pineal gland, whether it is in the distant future, outer space, some other universe, or on top a balding man’s head — the third eye and the lizard brain seem to have a lot of significance to the story lines. Would you say that’s true, that the experience of your comics is partially a study of the deepest brainstem’s desires and identities? Why?
S- Consciousness and matter are entities that form the Cosmos. Brain is the product of billion of years of random transformations of the matter. The universe is finally conscious of its self. The study of the brain is a doorway for a better understanding of human beings and animals. If the lizard brain is the primitive centre that controls the basic survival instincts the opening of the third eye is a metaphor of enlightenment through the use of the frontal lobes which are the more recent revolutionized part of the brain. The balance between the duality of these manifestations might be the key to the survival of humanity. This is a very challenging realm that we both are investigating with our artwork.
A few questions about inspirations, do you listen to music when you draw?
S- Sometimes I listen to music while drawing
L- Yes quite often. Sometimes it can play an important part in the creative process and mindset.
Favorite foods and drinks to have by your side while making comics?
S- I don’t drink or eat while making comics
L- Usually have a coffee in the studio once a day with a muffin or whatever I can find.
Best comic books ever?
S- The Nikopol trilogy, Incal, Akira, Metabarons, Lone Sloane
L- Akira, Memories Otomo collection, Airtight Garage, Grey, Arzak, Memories of outter space.
Most impressive living artist?
S- David lynch, Alexadro Jodorowsky
Won’t miss an issue of what ongoing comic book?
S- Nothing in mind
L-The pulp anthology that serialised Akira in the 90’s but that shits over…
Favorite comic book argument with friends?
S- Never had one.
L- No, The Angouleme festival hates us so we never went other wise we would have definitely tried to see the guru.
Of all the storytellers, the way the comics Moebius made leap from idea to idea with such imagination, and the great twists he can pull off in the final panels, he seems to be a great precursor to what you’re doing. Would you agree?
S- Yes. Moebius and many other European comic artists from that time period expressed a far more complex way of storytelling.
L- It is truly amazing and inspiring what he did with comics. Metal Hurlant was a great format for artists to experiment with ideas in science fiction. But also a lot of the great Sci-fi writers came up writing short stories in pulp digests which also provided this sandbox outlet for ideas but in a different medium.
S- A cheap western propaganda about the fear of the unknown and the alien. The cross as a symbol of Christian faith overpowering the vanity of immortality, physical and mechanical. The monstrous other that carry’s weapons of mass destruction ready to destroy our beloved planet. Hollywood continues to reinforce with multi million dollar films the mirror that creates only reflections.
L- I didn’t bother going to see it
Curious if you ever heard of a graphic novel called The Cage by Martin Vaughn-James? It feels like some kind of strange precursor to your style, very obscure and almost forty years ago…? (below images are by Stathis, not Vaughn-James)
L- Same here. It looks way before its time.
What are some of your touchstone stories, favourite science fiction comics, best art you can’t forget or keep going back to learn from?
S- Starmaker by Olaf Stapledon, Ubik by Philip K.Dick, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The Star Diaries by Stanislaw Lem.
L- The Drought, and The Crystal world, as well as the Terminal beach short story collection by J G Ballard. Tarkovsky films Solaris and Stalker and Kubricks 2001 space oddessy
Do you script your comics and do thumbnail sketches and careful planning before you start a new story, or do you just begin by pencilling the panels and take it from there? Like, how much do you plan?
S- I don’t really plan much. I tend to be spontaneous with blending together sketches and drawings into some sort of a storyboard. I am pencilling the panels and finalizing the drawings by tracing them with a pen.
L- I doodle a lot of ideas…never in sketch pads but on large sheets of paper paper usually. Characters or a setting usually emerge and then some key moments. I will then usually try to thumbnail the first 2 or 3 pages, rarely any more then that before I start penciling and inking. I never write anything and it can be a chaotic and uncertain way of working, but this way the story and characters are more alive and real, Often I don’t know how the story is going to end till the last few pages.
Some of your comics, like Upheaval and Olympic Games seem to pull imagery from current events, like the riots and the 2012 games, and use these dramas to take readers in the realms of the unreal, questioning the authority and the dissenter — there’s style to these that would look good on a brick wall — do you wheat paste or look at your city’s graffiti or draw from photojournalism or personal experience?
S- I let my senses open to the world. I like to construct new ideas within my brain by using all this raw material that is out there. The city is a pool of inspiration, I try to keep this flow running without judgements or restrictions. My intuition does most of the job.
L- Real politics and news plays a very important part in my work, as well as my own reality and environment. I am not interested in creating and escapism, but rather try to make work that reflects the present times while looking towards a future or alternate reality.
Do you suspect NASA is about to find evidence of life on Mars?
S- I believe that life is everywhere within the cosmos. I am positive with the idea that there is some sort of microbe organisms living on Mars.
S- Never heard of it.
How would you describe the UK comic scene I mean, is there stuff coming out that you like and stuff you wish didn’t exist?
L- The UK has a very strong community and scene for comics that has evolved a lot in the last few years. Due to the lack of publishers for comics until recently the only option has been to self publish, so there is a very diverse range of comics. We have always been a bit oddball among UK scene and sometimes have found a more receptive audience in the zine and alternative press community.
Do you show your art in galleries or sell your pages?
S- Yes, we are occasionally having exhibitions in galleries and sell original artwork.
Some of your comic titles reference classic conspiracy theories, MK ULTRA, and HAARP, for example. I read the titles almost like fresh science-fiction tropes you’re creating for the Decadence universe, that pineal gland combination of mindfuck, thought control, and violence. What is the most convincing conspiracy theory you’ve come across so far in your research?
S- Rhetorical politics and Capitalist democracy is the most convincing conspiracy theory. The very few elites are managing to control the far more in numbers masses within a total unequal system of power distribution. The masses are accepting this condition for hundreds of years, makes the perfect conspiracy for me.
You’re making an animation based on one of your comics?
S- Actually my latest short sci-fi film called MOA192B is based on a comic story called Protoconscious. Here is the site of the film where u can find all the information about this project.
L- I have an unfinished 20 minute 2D animation that fits in with my Untranslated comics setting that I hope to one day make public.
S- At the moment I am working on a project called Human Body Transmutation and Fauna and I am planning to release all the drawings in a book. We are both collaborating on some ideas and storyboards for a future full length film.
L- We will be putting together the 10th Decadence issue soon, it will be 10 years since issue 1 next year. Im currently working on a story about space exploration and evolution to be in a new anthology being published in Sweden.
click the pic to read the rest of the short story over at Rusty Toque.
Austin English is an avant-garde comic book artist living in Brooklyn, NY, with his wife, Clara Bessijelle, also an avant-garde comic book artist. They both make epic and important comics as well as operate a small publishing house called Domino dedicated to releasing more avant-garde styles as well as their own inimitable work. They print everything from minicomics out of a photocopier to glossy books with spines and Austin English’s beautiful lithographs. Austin English started publishing comics with the hugely influential comics publisher and comic book artist Dylan Williams, whose tragic death last year was a horrible shock to the independent comics community. English’s first book for Sparkplug was Christina and Charles, and this comic and the work he contributed to the Windy Corner anthologies were tricky little art experiments that gained him a lot of attention in the comic book world, largely because of the strangely childish coloured pencil style. Now comes the Basquiat-like expressiveness of his latest works like The Disgusting Room — in which a maturity and depth is matched to the glee and wonderment found in those early works. Click this sentence for a preview of The Disgusting Room, which is reproduced on newsprint like a paper and is very affordable. I find that after reading Austin English’s comics, my eyeballs are on the floor and I need to reel them back into my head. I sent Austin a whole bunch of questions over e-mail.
What kind of room and on what kind of surface did you first learn to draw?
When I was in 3rd grade, all my friends were doing some sort of drawing. We were all really into comic books or cartoons and there was something in the water for kids that age and in that era (I think this was 1993) about creating your own universe of characters. I remember coming home one night and wanting to draw more then I’d ever wanted to before—not to doodle or copy a picture from a Tintin album, but to draw a story. I started drawing a bunch of characters that night in our living room. My mom was talking on the phone and I was sitting in a chair. I think the surface was probably just a stack of paper on my lap.
After drawing a bunch of little characters I went into my room and tried to put these characters I had drawn into a story, which I had the most frustrating struggle with. I have basically been having that struggle with comics ever since! But it was that desire to tell a story with characters that felt like the beginning of actual drawing for me, because I felt so wrapped up in it. Before that I would just doodle or try to draw comic book characters from memory and eventually I would loose interest. But from that night on I don’t think I ever stopped trying to make comic stories in one way or another.
How soon after you started drawing did you start using paint and collage and other materials to make pictures?
With those drawings from 3rd grade, I drew in #2 pencil. I have sort of come full circle now, because I am working on a comic right now that is all in graphite. But not with a #2…I use this pencil I really like called a ‘Technalo’ made by a Swiss company called Caran d’Ache. I use a 3B most of the time.
In high school, when I wanted to make zines I realized I had to draw in ink so that I could photocopy it. I had seen the movie CRUMB so many times so I naturally thought a Rapidograph was the way to go. But after a while, as I started to get more and more serious about comics, I think my love for painting and experimental art in general became to strong to ignore. If comics were what I was going to devote myself to, I had to put all my different image making ambitions into them.
I was lucky enough to be pretty young and impressionable when Kramers Ergot #4 came out, so incorporating non traditional cartooning tools into comics seemed really natural to me. I started drawing most of my comics in colored pencil because I really liked the line weight you could get and it seemed like a natural way to add color to your work. I think in the years since Kramers #4 there has been a backing away from non-traditional approaches in comics, with people much younger than me working in really tight, non-painting styles. But as I fall deeper and deeper into loving to tell a story with images, I find myself wanting to add as many different approaches as possible—I used acrylic paint in Disgusting Room because it changed the way I drew figures—and if drawing a figure is like writing a sentence, I’m always trying to find new ways to vary the hardness of my sentences. There was a time when I wanted to make my characters act as incredibly blunt sentences and that’s when I began doing stone lithography.
Every now and then I force myself to sit down and write a story that will just be prose. I partly do this because I think it would be a good exercise, but mainly because my first lvoe is literature. But as I get deeper into writing anything, if I find it good and worthwhile, I can’t let it not be a comic. And I guess that is what happens with every art apart from comics—if I like what I’m doing, I can’t stop myself from cannibalizing it into comics storytelling. When I’m sitting down working on anew story, I feel all of my brain and hearty engaged into moving a character around the page, and putting them into landscapes and situations and complicating those landscapes/situations. The only art form I felt as engaged in was stone lithography, where I did some non-story related imagery. With that, I think the intensive, detail oriented process of producing the lithographs was enough complication that it felt like a story in and of itself-smoothing the stone, applying the ink, etc.
How have the homes and the cities and towns where you’ve lived informed or inspired your work?
I keep telling people that living in New York for 8 years wound me up with a lot of desire to make art work as strongly and wildly as I could manage. Then, moving to Sweden for two years allowed me to really follow through on that desire. When I moved to Sweden, I didn’t know many people, I feel like I made a lot of huge steps in my work people, I didn’t have a job right away and it was very cold. In my first 6 months there, I feel like I made so many advances in my art that I had been dying to make in New York. Now that I’m back in New York, I feel like there’s no turning back—those two years were invaluable because they changed my work habits so much.
But New York is responsible for the tone of my work. If there’s one thing I missed in Sweden, it’s the intensely aggressive and rude nature of New York. People live their private lives right in front of you here and that they do it very loudly and unapologetically. I don’t really agree with that way of living—I happen to think the way people live in Sweden is much healthier and more beautiful. Maybe as a more mature artist I can make work about that more sedate of living. But my stories are kind of like aggressive thrillers and New York does feed your imagination for that. The griminess of The New York Post and that flippant nature of almost everyone you deal with here is infectious. If you choose to not hate it you can have a good conversation with it, in your mind.
Were there people along the road who you believe helped you to make comics?
It’s impossible for me to overstate the importance of Dylan Williams in my life. Dylan passed away in September and I don’t think any of us who loved him can really beleive it. For months, almost every day I’ll think about something Dylan said to me, or something will happen that i want to tell Dylan about. It’s becoming more real to me that he’s gone but the amount of things I wish I could share with him on a daily basis keep piling up. He was that kind of friend—the one you could call anytime about anything and talk for hours with. Sometimes things—movies, friendships, a page of newly drawn comics that I felt good about—didn’t feel real until I told Dylan about them. My friend (and fellow cartoonist) Nate Doyle both keep grasping for words when we talk about Dylan—he was just too good a friend and mentor to lose. It’s impossible to communicate just how much he meant, because he did more for people he cared about and was more present and open in conversation and friendship than virtually any other person I know.
And so many people feel this way about Dylan. He was THERE in the fullest meaning of the word for all of us and I hope he knew how much it meant to us.
I met Dylan when I was around 16, at Al’s Comics in San Francisco. A couple months before we met, I had walked into Al’s and bought REPORTER #1, and loved it. There was a note written on the inside cover from Dylan to his readers, with a little drawing of an fashioned comics artist at a drawing table.
Immediately that drawing said so much about Dylan. Just this true love for comics that he always let you in on in small ways. That was a small, insert drawing but it had this real love for comics in it. I guess that is poetry, right? Something that communicates a feeling so strong that you can’t miss it. Dylan’s whole life towards comics was a bit like that.
So this time I walked into Al’s, and Al said ‘hey Austin, let me introduce you to the guy that draws Reporter.’ There was Dylan browsing through comics. It’s so fitting that the first memory of Dylan I have is him in a comic store. Dylan LOVED comics in the most beautiful way I’ve ever seen someone love something. He used to say, when I complained about working at Forbidden Planet sometimes (apologies to my great boss Jeff Ayers for admitting I ever had a moment of doubt about the job—it happened from time to time), that ‘selling comics is God’s work.’ There was an ample bit of humor in that but also a lot of real belief in the idea.
I had just started drawing comics when I met Dylan, and when we met in Al’s, Al handed Dylan a copy of one of my first mini comics (it was a comics biography of Thelonious Monk). Dylan , within a short amount of time, wrote me a warm letter about the comic–we’d talked for just a few minutes, but I think for Dylan, a teenager like myself making weird mini comics (if you aren’t keen on my crude drawing now, just imagine it at 16) was something that was, without question, to be encouraged.
I have always always just wanted to make art, but for most of my life, I thought I would do it pretty privately…sending out zines to friends and artists I admire, but never give into it as much as I wanted because I was too embarrassed of the oddness of my work to try to fully stand behind it. When Dylan wrote to me, out of the blue, to publish a book of my work (whatever work I wanted to make into a book was fine), I really never turned back. That commitment to my own work is really 100% from Dylan. And the thing is, Dylan had that effect of SO MANY people. I mean–today, I love drawing so so so much more than I did when I started because I’ve committed to it so much and forced myself to push my art as hard as I can. And that is a thrill, every day and it fills me (corny as it sounds but Dylan would appreciate the honesty here) with satisfaction. But I never would have been able to make it to this point without Dylan’s CONSTANT belief and encouragement. Dylan’s support was always unwavering and for long stretches of time he was the ONLY PERSON who seemed to have any remote interest in my work. And Dylan believed in treating people this way, respecting them in this way. He knew it was the right thing to do. I tried to tell him over and over again how much it meant to me, and I hope when he shrugged me off and said ‘yeah sure, ok’ that he really did hear what I was saying.
What sort of comics are out there today do you feel an affinity with but haven’t got much or any connection to?
One of my weaknesses is that if I see a comic I have affinity with, I can’t stop myself from at least writing to the person so that i DO have a connection with it. I’m trying to do that less and less, so that I can just enjoy some comics without relentlessly involving myself in some way. I have always admired everything German cartoonist Anke Feuchtenberger does, and I feel connected to her artistically—she embodies almost everything I aspire to in my work. Her comics are in one way purely comics—characters move through the page, leading us through a story. But in a more important way, her comics have something that so much of cartooning lacks: they are unashamedly serious and speak to our deeper emotions, which a lot of comics can never reconcile themselves to. Feuchtenberger also has this incredible drive to grow in her drawing…recent albums look radically different from other ones. I think, to a lot of cartoonists, ‘growing with your drawing’ means ‘refining your style.’ Frederic Coche, who I also feel an affinity towards but have no connection to, released this amazing new book that is minimal and painterly—a stark contrast from his earlier, meticulous etching comics. I found that incredibly inspiring and I know that it felt like a step forward in image making for him. So I really feel an affinity for cartoonists who with each book are pushing their image making into a direction that is away from what they’ve already settled into.
That affinity may simply be there because it’s a rare quality in cartooning. I also have a deep affinity for someone like Kim Deitch who has pushed what he does well so far and with so much passion that it becomes undeniably beautiful and technical in the most breathtaking way.
Have you exhibited your work in any kinds of galleries? Do you have friends more in that world than comics?
I support myself (although in a modest way since my rent and cost of living is incredibly low) in part by selling original art—pages from my comics. I have never shown in galleries, and the people that buy my work are art world people who stumble upon the books or see work online and contact me directly. Almost all of them express that they’d like my work more if I did non-comic imagery…i.e, static, non narrative work. These people seem to take appreciate my drawing more than the comics world so I always feel this flirtation to focus more on that world—the comics world often says some harsh things about he way I raw and at times it feels like a broken record of ‘is this even comics?’ But I love comics too much and when people buy my art and express their preference for me doing painting over comics, I tend to find that more distasteful than the comics world dismissing me.
A story is what generates alive and potent imagery for me. You can’t worry much about passing trends or desires in comics or the art world and you just have to work as hard as possible to put as much of yourself in your work as you can and hope that in the long term people will come to respect that. I like selling art and wish a gallery would take a chance on me but I think the way to do that is to just keep making art.
I wonder if you’ve ever encountered anyone or anything in your life you feel is opposed to your creative goals? How do you counter the prevailing nonsense of the world that doesn’t look to support creative goals?
Well, every day I’ll read something that drives me crazy, either from fellow artists or from bloggers or whatever. I think comics has a very weird relationship with growing up as a art form directly tied to commerce, due to being in the newspaper. I think with underground comics and stuff like Raw there has been this constant attrition against that but there is still this very real undercurrent of hostility towards people not following the ‘conventional standard.’ There seems to be this belief that comics need to make a strong body of ‘solid’ works, just skillful works before we get into any other nonsense.
But I think comics need to look beyond that. I see artists, when they’re just starting out, backing away from the conventional standard. Probably because they are blissfully unaware of a conventional standard. I wish that they were allowed to stay unaware. Unfortunately, what seems to happen a lot is after that initial burst of unique, eccentric creation, I see the standard being subtly imposed on these artists. I can’t count how many distinctive cartoonists I’ve seen ending up doing straightforward comics.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. I believe that if you admire an artist, you give them the benefit of the doubt and follow them where they want to go. But it still feels odd–after Kramers Ergot #4 there seemed to be this moment where the tried and true ways of making comics wouldn’t be held so dearly anymore. Now, especially in avant-garde circles, they seem to be in a place of high regard again. I love genre comics, I like some corporate comics. But I don’t think they’re models that need to be followed. In film, the Cahiers du Cinema crowd loved George Cukor… but they didn’t make movies like him. They admired Cukor for his originality, for making personal films. That’s what they took away–not his commitment to the studio system or some such ideal. I think that Harlan Ellison quote is apt in a way: “Comics people choose the wrong heroes.” I’d change it to say “comics people tend to take away dubious lessons from their heroes.”
What I tried to do with Windy Corner, as an editor–and what I’m now trying to do on a different scale with Domino Books–is find artists that I felt were making powerful art and who didn’t fit into the normal idea of what art comics are. Every single artist I work with–my secret hope is that they go further and further in their distinctive direction, pushing their aesthetic as hard as they can. I think, without this kind of advocacy, the pressures (external or internal) to make comics the ‘normal way’ can be strong. I know Dylan Williams’ [of Sparkplug] early support for my work has been indescribably important to me. I think without that support, I’d have made very different choices with my art. I’m thankful that, due largely to his and others faith in what I was doing, that I’m making what I’m making. I think I’m obligated to pay that support back to artists I feel strongly about.
Part of this is that, if I want comics to be a place where I can be free as an artist and make the kind fo comics that are important to me, maybe I can help create that place with DOMINO—by publishing work that I find challenging, thus making the terrain of comics more adaptable to challenging works. With each book from DOMINO, maybe someone who sees comics with the same open feeling that I have for them will do their own thing, and works like mine will start to feel more conventional.
How important is your family in your creative life?
My mom and dad are very supportive—my main has been an artist all her life, and when I was young she supported herself in part by selling paintings at cafe shows and through doing paintings for community gardens and stuff like that. She lives and breathes art and literature and so when i was young, books and paintings seemed like natural things to emulate. So everything I do, she’s very happy about—she raised children her entire life and always worked so I think she’s happy that one of her children followed in her footsteps to make a real stab at making art.
My dad is very different. When I was young he was highly involved in The United Farmworkers organization in California, working on union rights for migrant works. There is a strong undertone of anger about basic injustice in my work that seems apparent to me but maybe not so apparent to other people. But that is largely from my dad and I’m very grateful for that.
Clara Bessijelle, my wife, is responsible for a lot of the steps forward I’ve made in my work lately. We often draw together and seeing Clara works motivates me to work. Recently, I was working on this current story and I really wanted to abandon it, because it felt like a rehash of the drawing style I used for ‘Here I Am.’ Clara looked at the pages and forced me to look at them sie by side with ‘here I Am’…and of course they were completley different. Her faith in my work pulls me through a lot of moments where I’m about to abandon a piece i should really stick with.
Can you tell me a little about how you meet Clara and perhaps describe how your working process is similar and different? Do you guys have good eating habits? Is Brooklyn both affordable and healthy for a young artist couple?
I met Clara here in Brooklyn at a party at our house. She was visiting the USA for 9 days, as a guest of Buenaventura Press for a comics festival, and then going back. I’d never been to Europe before, never set foot out of the USA.
Clara’s process is very different. She spends months doing research, looking at photography books and making small notes—during this time she draws a lot of texture and faces that she may or may not end up using later. Once she has a very clear idea of what the story she’s working on is, she starts drawing pretty non stop and the story (which has been coming out very slowly up tot his point) takes shape very fast. Once she knows what she’s drawing, she draws for about 5 or 6 hours a day, knocking out pages with lots of detail at a really fast clip. But it’s the stage before that that is very painstakingly slow. But all the work she does in that period adds up to the whole—which is very different from me. I sit down and draw the story and whatever comes up during that time gets thrown in right away.
I think you can eat healthy in both places, but you have to plan it out way better in New York. You can rely on produce to be fresh all over Sweden, and fried food isn’t being shoved at you the minute you walk out the door. But Brooklyn is what you make of it, health wise.Sweden is a much nicer place than Brooklyn. As a diabetic, I don’t have health insurance here, but I got it in Sweden right away. Insulin is free there—it is $150 dollars a bottle here. Much calmer and fairer. No one every did anything wildly inconsiderate or erratic to me while I was over there, which I guess I expect at this point from fellow Americans. People are also very close to their families there, which I really appreciated. And in the summer you can stay in the countryside and grow vegetables. It is a kind, sensible society which I find increasingly admirable given how things are here. But….the USA has this X-factor about art. No one ever said very encouraging things to Clara about her art in Stockholm—even well wishers were tight lipped. Here, people that are enthusiastic about her work say it to her, and the overall energy about making work and pushing your art is impossible to miss. I think they are good extremes to go back and forth between.
We pay $200 a month in rent. I can’t imagine living here if we didn’t have that situation (it’s a big reason as to why I’m able to do DOMINO). I’m lucky because I have enough friends here that I was able to get that cheap room when it came up.
How important is music, movies, books, other media to your creative life?
Well, books are very important. When I was in Sweden, and finding English language books was hit or miss (I read a lot of Raymond Chandler while I was there because English versions of his work were just around), it was a bit of a crisis. Books are, to me, these tomes that people have poured their best qualities into (even if their best qualities are highly negative) and they’re waiting for you whenever you’re ready to converse with them. I like talking with friends and going to parties but I feel that books are a better space to express your more acute, sensitive, aggressive and real thoughts. As an artist I’m content with dipping into this world at my own speed and responding to it as best I can in my own work.
I feel the same about films when I go see them in the theater. In Sweden (or anywhere outside of New York I guess), watching a Bela Tarr movie at home was great but not as precious as my greatest moments with art tend to be. Recently in New York, Lincoln Center did a retrospective of Tarr’s movies, and seeing that work as it was meant to be seen—on a good screen where the rich black and white tones were overflowing—felt like a real exchange, like I was really feeling the work. Like anything, it’s always worth the effort to experience art int he right way if it means something to you.
Dylan Williams had this great quote: ‘Art isn’t bullshit and love isn’t bullshit.’ I struggle to add more than that.
So after seeing all of Bela Tarr’s work on the big screen, which of his films ended up being your favourite? For some reason I’m really hung up on The Man From London even though critics seem to dismiss it.
It’s hard to beat Satantango. I usually appreciate works that are tighter (i.e, novellas, pamphlet comics). But that film has no filler within it’s 8 hours. The stuff with the girl and her cat, that says so much about people that I struggle to say in my own work. And the dancing in the bar, the man repeating that story endlessly.
His work does this thing that so few other people can even approach: Damnation is about infidelity, almost high level melodrama. And then there’s that scene with the dancing in the bar, the whole village dancing together. So it has this conviction towards serious emotions but also undercuts it with beautiful casualness, with crude sloppy displays. The emotions of that guy in the lead in Damnation—you get to believe in them (they’re real) but also see them for how overblown they are. That is something I rarely see in art—deep emotion and its opposite, all valid and all reproachable at the same time. It’s how I see things too, but the skill to present it so well is a thrill to behold.
Would you be interested in further defining what it is about a publication like VICE that you feel does not click with the philosophy behind DOMINO?
Well, VICE, like anything, isn’t all bad. They can be funny and enjoyable—and they have hired some great cartoonists to do work that I enjoy. But they are essentially this lazy negative publication, with emphasis on the lazy bit (I enjoy creative negativity very much). Their attitudes on women and fashion are gross because of the boring fake edginess of it all and I do think those kind of attitudes are deading if you expose yourself to it too much.
I think art is important and should be beyond mediocrity like VICE. So many people in art communities are always like ‘fuck VICE’ but then very excited or work for them. I think there are always better ways to make a buck, and in the long term, rejecting a rag like VICE (which won’t love you over the years) is important for the health of your art. Small bits of promotion from something that you essentially do not respect and has the opposite goals of your idealistic art is good short term/bad long term. It weakens you and then forgets about you. There are better avenues to associate yourself with—something like Mothers News is pure and if you need to be into something hip, it’s hip.
VICE is one example, and an easy one. I think even something like The New York Times, even if they’re writing about you—they don’t really give a fuck. Why get excited over their tepid embrace? Making art should be beyond that—beyond superficial validation from aging media outlets. There are hungry, smarter, more passionate places that we should think of as more worthy sources of validation if validation means so much. Really, abandoning validation at all would be a good start! But that is much easier said then done, obviously. I think we have to start wanting writers to have a conversation with our work rather then being excited over a flashy soundbite. Because do you make art to sell 5 copies of your zine because of that soundbite? Will that even help you make the rent? Some people seem to be putting so much effort into getting that little indifferent pat on the head that youd think a lot was riding on it.
Where do you live and work now? Is there a comics community in your area that you participate in beyond publishing?
I live and work in this place called 282 Broadway which is actually a large living/studio space where lots of cartoonists live—over the years Lizz Hickey, Keith Jones, Jesse McManus, Victor Cayro, Becca Kacada, Jon Vermileya, Jeff Ladouceur, Clara Bessijelle and other artists have all lived here. There is a large downstairs area where I make my won art and run DOMINO from. If you look out the window, the JMZ subway line runs right outside our window and there are Brooklyn bodegas and donut shops all along our block. It’s a dream come true…
When I was in high school, the first real powerful experience I had with music was with Thelonious Monk records. I was never very happy in high school, and Monk’s music was really important to me. I listened to those records over and over again, because the emotion in them was palpable but also obscure enough that you could make it your own, if you needed it. I had just really discovered zines at this time—another source of comfort—and making a zine about Thelonious Monk seemed like some kind of answer to all my troubles. Working on those zines was instantly empowering—-I knew from then on, no matter what, I’d keep making these things in some form or another, because it felt very very right.
How would you describe the changes that have occurred in your comics since you started publishing?
Over the years, the characters I draw have grown in mass. The more I draw characters, the more I want them to feel strongly and firmly planted on the ground. I try to think of my figure drawing as statue making, my characters as solid pillars as your eye moves along the page of the story.
The characters weight, and the style I draw in, is very personal to me. My comic stories are often sparsely written in terms of text, with the true ‘writing’ being the construction of the figure. For me, the feeling of drawing governs the direction of the writing. The thicker a character appears on a page, the thicker—and more aggressive—the emotion they give off in the story. My storytelling mind begins to boil through the process of image making.
I recently completed a year of studying lithography at Kungliga Konsthögskolan (MEJAN) in Stockholm, Sweden. I applied to the program because I wanted to study lithography as a means to broaden my storytelling through learning a new process of image making. In my comics, I have used all types of materials: pens, pencils, inks, oil pants, acrylics, water colors, and even fabric all in a search for different ways to build up the ‘sculpture’ of my characters and drive the direction of my stories into new areas of emotion. Lithography held a very strong appeal to me for the weight it gave to the image. As I pushed harder and harder in my drawing to add mass and permanence to my characters, my art seemed to be crying out for lithography, where an image is so thick and strong that it is printed directly into a piece of heavy paper. Nibs and brushes couldn’t offer the hardness of a lithograph, and the stories I wanted to tell where ones with heavy characters driving the action.
I usually draw at night and, because I live with a lot of other artists, we often end up around the dinner table together at around 11pm, drawing. I have a hard time drawing in the morning—there are always things to do and get done and drawing usually happens when everything else is squared away. I used to work 4pm until midnight, come home at 1am and draw until 7am. I really miss that time, because that drawing felt like so much fun fun—drawing while the rest of New York was asleep and nothing could possibly happen to change the feeling of the night.
What kinds of pens and pencils and paper and materials do you like to use? Do you have any techniques you rely upon to create your images?
I go to New York Central Art Supply to buy this great paper called Stonehenge. it’s wonderful because its great for just drawing in graphite but it is also very strong paper, so you can add gobs of acrylic, oil pants, tons of ink and it’ll hold all of it very well. I use G Nibs, also form New York Central, for work in ink—for years people had told me to use a Hunt 102 nib, but I like G nibs because you can bear down on them really hard. Using a G feels closer to drawing then simply applying ink.
Do you make a lot of sketches before you start your finished pages?
I draw a lot of sketches but directly onto the page that will become the finished art. That way sometimes I can use the initial sketch—I go through a lot of erasing and rearranging of shapes and oftentimes an erased shape will form the basis for a pattern or texture.
I work a lot in a sketchbook but hardly ever to ‘work out ideas’ for stories. I don’t mind seeing the though process behind the drawing, even if it gets in the way of the strong illusion created by the storytelling. I’m sure a lot of people would disagree with that though.
So, here’s where I’ll post some of the sketchbook and script pages that you’ve been kind enough to share. This is some of the work you did on My Friend Perry. And what I’m curious to know is what is important for you to learn and discover at the early stages?
I’m not sure what you mean exactly. I know starting the story is the hardest thing. I start each story off by writing a loose outline about the story and the relationships of the characters. To me, the essential part of any story is characters interacting. So I figure out what kind of people I want to throw together.
But starting the first page is a struggle because I gain so much confidence as I go on because there’s a stack of finished pages next to me—I pile each page I’ve finished next to the age I’m working on. When there’s no finished page next to me when I do page 1, its hard to imagine that I have it in me to do it and hard to cast about for what kind of tone the story will have. It feels like a massive undertaking to commit to a certain tone. But one there are five pages laying about, I can feel myself falling into things.
Your sketches are pretty advanced, the pictures seem pretty much finished. What happens between sketch and final image? Is a story building in your mind as you draw the pencil sketches?
Well, I know how I want a finished image to make me feel. I know an image I love is one where I surprise myself or feel something outside of me within the drawing—something I don’t recognize from previous drawings. Sp if I have that in a sketch, which is rare, I want to leave that in. But my stories are precious to me while my sketchbooks are not. I want the best work in the stories, because that is like a continuing diary of my work. So i will labor endlessly to get something into each drawing in the stories that I know I’m proud of.
What kinds of pencils do you prefer on what kind of paper?
As i said above, I use Stonehenge paper most of the time for ink with pencil and color—but for work that’s just in graphite like I’m working on now, I use Fabriano sketchbook paper and this great pencil that I mentioned above, the Technalo from Caran d’Ache, 3B.
What do you need to know in the script and sketch stage of the process in order to feel you’re ready? How much of a script must you complete in order to feel like you can start to sketch? And how much sketch do you need to do for each frame before you set down a finished page?
I have to know at least what is happening on the page. I have to have some form of notes—sometimes that is notes written out in a sketchbook and sometimes that is just loose notes written down on the piece of paper I’m working on. But I need to have the story mapped out at least 2 or 3 pages in advance, the general idea of what each character will say. Sometimes even the way they are posed is important although most of the time I want the pose to be improvised.
I have done comics many different ways, but the process I worked out on The Disgusting Room, where I write out the outline and general relationships, and then write about 3 pages of very loose script as if I was giving actors in a play fresh lines without them knowing the end of the story exactly—that has really stuck. When I try to write the story as I’m drawing—come up with a story element entirely from improvised drawing—that has always been a disaster. I do believe in that though—I’d call that the ideal of cartooning. Maybe someday I’ll get there.
The style you’ve developed has a deceptively loose and wild look to it, which doesn’t look all that easy to achieve. What sort of vision guides your intentions when developing sketches towards finished pages?
Well I want the finished pages to have something of me in them, to reflect me pushing myself towards new image making as much as possible. I think of the story ages as permanent, my ‘flagship’ art and I want the best of what I have within me to be on those pages. For me a strong image is one I didnt know I had within me so that’s what I want to see on those pages.
This new story I was working on, I really felt like it was a bad rehash of previous styles. When Clara convinced me it looked really different, that really excited me and drove my ambition for it.
Is the script usually changing while you create the finished work? And are you sketching before as well as during the process of creating finished pages?
While the general idea of what’s happening in the page is reflected in the script, the exact dialogue is hardly ever in there. I sue to actually cut out word balloons at the very end and make up all the dialogue when the book was completed. I want to stop doing that because I think pasting that in really hurts the drawing. So now I’m trying to plan out spaces to place the dialogue. But the exact phrase, I rarely decide on that until the very end.
I often edit out entire sequences—but because I only write a few pages in advance, I rarely edit the story much before drawing it. If something doesnt work once its drawn, I take it out—but before drawing, the script is usually just a few hours old and I don’t hate it enough yet to axe it.
How important is improvisation in story development?
It’s important in the drawing because I’m trying to create drawings that feel fresh and that dictates the tone of the story, as I’ve explained above. But in terms of the writing I shy away from true improvisation. I guess part of me feels that the writing is something I know I want to refine more and it would feel like cheating to throw something unplanned out in the writing. The drawing I feel much more sure of and improvising with it is part of the kick–improvising to push myself further. The writing I feel like I have different goals for. There are more stark, blunt things I want to say in the writing that I want to articulate as clearly as possible, for now.
Can you recall any examples of how you decided the way to end your stories?
I want the stories to be like thrillers to some degree and to stop on a dime. I try to come down, as a statement, with no endorsement of the horrible things that the characters are doing/having done to them. I feel for the characters and some of them are good people. I want them to be in a place of danger at the end and have the reader know they might have the strength to fight their way out but who knows given the circumstance? And who knows whether the people trying to destroy them aren’t also good in a higher, more purely negative way? I want it to be exciting and maybe a little frightening on the last page.
I actually start out first thinking whether I want to do a long story or a short story. After a longer story, like The Disgusting Room, I wanted to do a shorter piece. I always have little scenarios shuffling around in my head, and its a question of knowing when I have the time and energy to do one of them justice—or if I want to work in a medium where I can carry it off. So actually the genesis of working on a story has to do with the format and length of what I want to do next, not vice versa.
One of the exciting things about your artwork, is the abstract characterization. The frames look like ab-ex paintings. And within it tour figures are unconventional, painterly, expressive, remind me of Basquiat, and living artists like Jason McLean, and Dana Schutz. In The Disgusting Room you have a set of three characters who are strange yet also easy to distinguish. Do you create character sheets to develop the look of each of your figures before you start to work?
No, not at all, which I often think is a failing of my work. At least for now, I pay little attention to how the character looks from panel to panel, offering only little consistencies like their hair style or shirt texture. I guess this is maddening for some readers—I remember reading Gary Panter comics and feeling like it was already ok to do this. To me it means more freedom in drawing…sometimes a character ive drawn 20 times can be an odd shape then in the next panel a more fleshed out body.
In some ways I guess this goes against the cardinal rules of comics. In a sense, cartooning should be pushing a consistently drawn character—or actor—through the story. I love this style of cartooning but I also like inventive drawing. I’m trying my best to tell stories clearly but also draw as inventively as I can and want.
What goes into your process of deciding what kind of material and subject matter you want to make comics about? Is a certain kind of poetic realism in your comics, and I wonder if you have any strong opinions on what is important as subject matter?
I’d narrow down what I’m interested in as being about how characters live alongside each other, how they share rooms or apartments. Every time I sit down to write a story, it often ends up being about that… I’ll try to write something broader in mind and it usually devolves into a story about people living side by side in close quarters.
I think most art that I have affection for is grounded in how characters treat each other. I’m a big admirer of Mervyn Peake, for instance. Now, for all the lush, imaginative writing as there is in Gormenghast–isn’t everyones favorite part how Fuschia interacts with Steerpike? Or Prunequallor and his sister? Gormenghast is grounded in these rich human exchanges–which I think augments the stranger elements to beautiful effect.
Something like El Topo is the same. These violent, absurd images coupled with all that wonderful stuff at the end–El Topo’s relationship to his son and the cave people. That end part is beautiful… who isn’t thrilled when they watch those bits? I think, combined with the absurd elements, works like that achieve this powerful authority.
There’s this bit at the end of Last Picture Show where Ruth Popper goes from shrill anger to really graceful compassion. I think that’s a valuable thing to express in art…comics never seem to show that gradation. I’ve always been moved by that in art and in people and I guess I’m always trying to do justice to it in my own art, through my own ham fisted methods.
Can you tell me a bit more about the comics you’ve published with Domino and how Domino works, and how you’ve learned to make it work?
I run DOMINO here in my drawing space at home. From Dylan, I learned a lot, especially to not look for validation from institutions that I think are hateful—so, I won’t send anything to VICE (to name one) because I don’t want to seek out publicity from something I’d rather wouldn’t exist. I want DOMINO to be an extension of my feelings and beliefs on art, so I try to treat it very carefully, approaching local businesses for services like mailers, stamps, shipping services, etc. I started DOMINO the minute I could—someone had bought a large amount of original art from me and instead of holding on to that money I immediately put it into DOMINO. I knew if I didnt start it then I never would. And that investment…I’m careful to never want it back. In the face of losing money on many small transactions that go into running DOMINO, I have to think of it as part and parcel of caring for these books and believing in them, and believing that they are worth double the time, effort and money I put into them. the comics world is low, low stakes economically and I think that is really good. That means people who put their all into it are doing it for very pure artistic reasons. Dylan said once that ‘selling comics is god’s work,’ in a joking but serious tone. I agree with hat more then I can say. Comics are privileged for their low economic status right now because the only reason to be doing this stuff is for the art. But you have to remind yourself of that as often as possible.
What are the main responsibilities that go into running Domino?
With DOMINO, I communicate with the printer, setting up PDFS and InDesign Files. I pick up the copies and then sell them from home. I contact stores myself, cold calling some of them. I process the orders myself from the website. I try to distribute the zines of people that contact me because i think that’s a first step for some artists thats important to encourage. And I seek out artists I admire who are self publishing to distribute their work too.
My favorite thing is to go to the post office with books from DOMINO, zines from Sweden, comics from Latvia, and from small corners of America and send them all out to people. That is something that brings me so much pleasure.
Our first book was DARK TOMATO with Sakura Maku. Sakura is about the same age as me and we’ve been making work at about the same speed and consistency over the years. Everything Sakura has done usually has a huge influence on my work—and so, when I started DOMINO I just felt this huge responsibility to support her art as if it was my own. I admire Sakuras work for its strong execution and the strange, intellectually potent world exists within that exacting execution. I think of Sakura primarily as a writer but one who uses everything comics has to offer to further her writing. There is this visual assault that accompanies Sakuras work when you first see it, but the more I look at it, the more it all feels in service of the writing, which is a tricky thing to do. Her text will be rendered on one page in this bouncy inviting way, and then shift to a fuzzy, almost hidden text that complicates the narrative. Sakura’s visual gestalt is such that this never feels like a put on. It feels like an elaborate game that’s rules are always shifting but that remain logical.
SPIDER MONEY by Jesse McManus is sort of a tribute to all kinds of comics—it has elements of childrens comics, horror manga, magic and adventure stories. I wrote a loose script of it for McManus to see what would hapen with his over the top style in a more reigned in mode. It has something about it that I really love: a seemingly simple narrative conceit that, once it sucks you in, pulls you through a very bumpy visual road. It looks pretty harmless page to page but within the panels there is tough terrain. I love how Jesse draws so much that I get a lot of pleasure just glancing at the cover.
What is upcoming on Domino?
Domino has a lot of books planned for the next 6 months. We will have FACE MAN by Clara Bessijelle and DIFFICULT LOVES by Molly Colleen O’Connell in March. Im starting work on an anthology that will feature Caroline Bren, Joanna Hellgren, Warren Craghead and EB Bethea. There is this artist called Jonathan Petersen that I love who will be doing a comic called Space Baskets that we will have in the summer. I also have a book of my own, The Life Problem, that I hope to put out very soon but I need to get the money in place.
Who are the cool printing press people to work with these days to achieve the right combination of affordability and good quality reproduction?
For DARK TOMATO, I used an Estonian printer called AS INGRI. They print this fantastic Finnish anthology called Kuti Kuti. They were great and if what you are doing is printing a black and white comic with a color cover, the costs are realtively low. I see kickstarter campaigns for similar projects and i feel like, if you ahev the desire to make something modest, you can moonlight a couple of nights a week and make a very beautiful book with the extra money you make.
I like prininting 24 pages comics beccause i feel like that is a perfect form for expression. it is like the novella of the comics world—just enough room to make a potent stement, and too few pages for any padding.
I’m now using a great printer in Long Island City (two subway stops away from my house) called LINCO. They print great stuff like Showpaper and Smoke Signals and tons of other independent comics that pop up on the east coast. They mostly print chinese restaurant menus and their press is always running. You go there to pick up your copies by subway and you’re in this abandoned wasteland of decaying industrial buildings with a lone, ultra bright blade runner esque video ad hanging above all of it. It’s a pleasure and a thrill to have stuff printed with Linco.
Do you attend the small press conferences and the artist publishers events like the big one that happened in Brooklyn or the events that happen at Motto in Berlin? Do you try to stay connected to the world of your comics or are you more focused on creating work?
As I’ve said a billion times now, I love comics. but I’m also very dissatisfied with them. DOMINO is an effort to pave the way for complicated work within comics, to make comics a more habitable place for the kind of work I care for. I do stay in a great deal of connection with everything that hapens in comics but I also feel a yearning to bring this work to other worlds of art, maybe ones that have fought the battles for experimental expression already that comics seem endlessly engaged in. I feel inklings of that battle beginning over in comics, like at the first Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Fest. But then at this recent one, I felt the creepings of love for artfully rendered genre at the doorstep (or really, in the living room already). I love artful genre but I wish it wasnt so all encompassing.
But no matter what, comics has so much energy right now and so much enthusiasm for making work that I never feel in any other arena of the arts. No mtter what, we are in phase where beautiful things are being created each year and I cant help but feel very carried away by that and wanting to contribute my two cents to all of it as hard and as seriously as I can.
Thank you, Austin!
Annie Koyama is the founder and publisher of Koyama Press, a Canadian print house specializing in fine art books, creatively autonomous comics, as well as limited run minicomics and ‘zines. All her books are surprisingly affordable, and each is printed with such care and attention, that the whole Koyama project seems truly generous and creative for the artists and the readership. A look through the backlist of Koyama titles shows us just where the state-of-the art is at — the whole spectrum of radical approaches to sequential art is presented. Here are some of the great voices and visions of our time, and both Koyama and her artists have consistently won prizes for the quality of their work. Artists like Keith Jones and Michael DeForge offer radical figuration and atomized apocalypses of the schizocapitalist variety. Cinematic visionaries like Tin Can Forest create shadowy, elegant paper landscapes to present timeless fables. I interviewed Annie Koyama over e-mail.
Was it an artist or an idea that inspired you to start Koyama Press?
After a life changing illness, I decided to try something different than what I’d done before (film). I found a few artists whose work I loved and funded a few small projects. That lead to the making of TRIO MAGNUS: Equally Superior, the first book. TRIO MAGNUS is Clayton Hanmer, Aaron Leighton and Steve Wilson.
How did you know how to start a small publishing house devoted to extraordinarily artistic comic books?
I had no idea but learned as I went along. I have a film background, not publishing.
What were some of the earliest titles you published?
Chris Hutsul’s comic A VERY KRAFTWERK SUMMER, Jon Vermilyea’s PRINCES OF TIME, Michael Comeau’s PARADE OF HUMANITY, Team Macho’s PRECIOUS GEMS were amongst the first books/zines published.
What size are you doing, how many copies will you make of a new comic in its first printing?
It depends on the artist and the book. The initial run could be anywhere from 500 to 2500.
What is your relationship to the manufacturing, do you oversee every aspect of the creation of a Koyama book?
I rely on the artist and sometimes get some production and design advice. I’d like the final book to be as close to what the artist envisions with as few constraints as possible.
How do you connect with an artist you want to publish?
I look at a lot of work online and most of the contact is online.
Ideally I’d like to have met the artist in person before the process begins but that’s not always the case. For example, right now I’m working with an artist who lives in Japan.
In 2011 I learned about Baba Yaga, the character from European fables, and have since found out about the comic you published about this fable. Can you tell me something about this book?
I also learned of Baba Yaga when I talked to Tin Can Forest aka Pat Shewchuk and Marek Colek about their book idea. They are filmmakers and their complimentary artwork styles are beautiful. They are working on their next book WAX CROSS which will debut in the spring.
You also publish Keith Jones and Michael DeForge. How would you describe this generation of comic artists and their interests in abstraction and anti-narrative sequential art?
I’m fascinated by the variety of art styles I’m seeing now. I see artists widely influenced by other cartoonists and pop culture but I think that in Keith and Michael’s cases the influences are not as readily evident to me. Because I like the so-called art comics I’m always interested in how artists mix it up. I still think you need a little narrative to make the work cohesive.
Generally files are emailed.
What are some of the most successful titles you’ve published?
In terms of sales, Michael DeForge’s LOSE series and SPOTTING DEER, BABA YAGA & THE WOLF, CAT RACKHAM LOSES IT by Steve Wolfhard, SPIRIT CITY TORONTO by Aaron Leighton.
Does it concern you a great deal when a comic doesn’t sell, or is that part of the risk?
Not really, I have such a diverse set of titles serving different interests that I don’t expect them to sell equally.
Does your website list all your titles or are there little zines and other small one-time comix that Koyama has done for conventions and art fairs and that kind of thing?
My site was recently redesigned by the talented folks at Squidface & The Meddler. All of the books and comics are up there with the exception of the zines I’ve published.
How connected is Koyama with the rest of the independent art book publishing world? Do you stay plugged in to the conventions and art fairs etc?
I try to keep up with the art book world but since there are fewer venues now to sell art books, I’ve shifted the balance to publishing more comics recently.
I still love art books and have just published Jeremy Kai’s photography book RIVERS FORGOTTEN about his underground explorations. I follow a lot of local artists and would like to get out to more gallery shows and fairs again.
Koyama Press exhibits at several book fairs and indie comics shows in Canada and internationally.
What are some of the best storefronts to find small press comics like Koyama?
This is only a partial list as I’m sure I’m omitting some good stores:
In Canada and the U.S.: The Beguiling, Strange Adventures, Librarie Drawn & Quarterly, Lucky’s, The Dragon, Quimby’s, Atomic Books, Meltdown Comics, Secret Headquarters, Bergen Street Comics, Desert Island, Big Brain Comics, Jim Hanley’s Universe, Dr. Comics & Mr. Games, DOMY, Copacetic Comics, Floating World, and Nucleus.
Internationally: Nobrow, Fatbottom Books, Neurotitan.
Where can you buy small press comix like Koyama online?
Some of the books are available directly from the artists on their sites, you can order from some retail stores like the Beguiling in Toronto, The Dragon in Guelph as well as from AdHouse Books http://www.adhousebooks.com/distro/distro.html and John Porcellino’s Spit and a Half http://spitandahalf.blogspot.com/.
Retailers can order from Tony Shenton http://shenton4sales.tumblr.com/,
Do you draw comics yourself?
In your daydreams, what artist would you love to have publish a comic with Koyama?
There are too many amazing artists to list whose work I’d like to publish and I often have to turn down work I’d love to take on if I had more time and funds. By publishing an anthology from time to time, I can include some of those on my wish list.
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