This year I’ve done a bunch of writing and drawing but not so much publishing. Here’s something I worked on early in January. Very excited to be a part of this project. I’ll post a link to the essay soon. (Please excuse the fantastic wordpress layout haha!)
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 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.
click the pic to read the rest of the short story over at Rusty Toque.
This year I published a short story available in issue 118 of Border Crossings .
Meg Wolitzer’s novels shouldn’t be spoiled. Even though nothing can spoil the fun of reading her books. Her writing has no expiry date that I can find. Timeless kind of prose, brilliant in many ways at once on every page. Still, I almost spoiled this interview by accidentally asking for an answer from Meg Wolitzer that would make her reveal what’s going to be one of the fun pleasures of reading to the end of her latest, The Uncoupling. So I edited that question out. If you’d like to know the ending, look elsewhere, others couldn’t resist. No biggie, like I said, it’s the reading of her flawless organic tell-all prose that’s the pleasure.
Meg Wolitzer lives in Manhattan, where she writes playful novels full of every imaginable kind of voice and flawed, wonderful characters. She observes them and disturbs them, she gives her characters public and private selves, and lets us see the contrast. She plays with shape and form and duration in her novels, using memory, media, real history, and intimate family details to spin wonderful, page-a-minute stories. The Uncoupling, her new novel, is not her first to consider the mating dance our first step into magic realism. The Ten-Year Lap, her novel from 2008, and before it, The Wife, The Position, and her first, Surrender, Dorothy, all discover real, vividly real scenarios and depictions of love and our relationships that would be absurd and impossible to consider were it not for great literature to invent a way.
How would you describe the way the action unfolds in your latest novel, The Uncoupling?
My novel involves a magic spell (I never thought I would use the words “my novel” and “magic spell,” in the same sentence), that is cast upon a suburban town, causing all the women to turn away from men in bed. The action, such as it is, unfolds subtly, in that it’s really a kind of inaction–a mass refusal. I follow the spell as it wafts through the town, and I go in and out of the bedrooms and psyches of the women and teenaged girls in question.
I wonder if in writing this novel you observed certain myths of the American sex life that your story was able to transgress or highlight?
I think there’s a truism in American culture that everyone wants sex all the time, and that to be healthy is to be strongly sexual. This began with Freud, I guess; if you were sexually repressed back then, you were seen as ill. But actually, I don’t think that sex is always the imperative in one’s life. There are vicissitudes, and I wanted to acknowledge that, at least metaphorically.
For a book about sex, there’s very little sex in The Uncoupling, because it’s about that aspect of life being taken away. But let’s see, in novels without magic spells or sex strikes, I like some of the sex scenes in… Jenette Winterson’s work, and in Jonathan Franzen’s.
Does theatre still have magical properties? — what parts of performance and rehearsal and line interpretation did you enjoy writing about?
I think all great literature–whether it’s meant to be only read, or read and performed, is highly powerful, and can change everything. That’s part of the premise of my book. There are lots of “spells” floating around out there in life, including the spell of art, which in some instances has lasted from ancient times all the way up until now.
Is there a play you’ve seen recently that made you wish you could have watched all the rehearsals?
[enough Time passes before publishing this interview that I can ask] What did you think of the play, now that you’ve seen it?
I actually found that I preferred reading the play, and I am not sure if it was this particular production, or simply the fact that the words fly around your head in Stoppard, and I as a writer can’t help but want to linger on them. Some of it was extraordinarily moving, of course. (For me, all you have to say is “Time passes,” and I am basically weeping.)
If you wrote a stageplay, what might it be about?
I actually am planning to write a musical with a musician friend. We are just starting to think what it will be. I have a fantasy about the ache of a play like “Our Town,” but with zesty music.
Are you interested in actors?
Sure. They are often much more beautiful than writers! Also, the actors I have met seem open to lots of different kinds of writing, and their interpretations of character are sometimes startling and not “fixed.”
This is a writing question and it turned into a long whopper: Your novels are lively relationships, and there are main characters, and through them we meet so many different people, secondary characters, and hear their stories told in so many different styles. The characters’ dialogue, the newspaper clippings. and announcements, letters, interviews, and all laid out in this fine, smooth order — what is your technique for developing these numerous voices, all appearing in and out of narrative and scenes and chapters, what effort to find that pace you like and the fluidity and continuity?
A while ago I had an insight (well, I think it was an insight) that the whole concept of “backstory,” or “flashback” was fallacious. Most of our lives are back-story, aren’t they? I am sitting here typing, but I am also thinking about something that happened to me this morning, and something that happened to me in my childhood. It goes back as much as it goes forward, and I think ordering parts of a novel for “momentum” can be a mistake, and goes against the grain of fiction. The ordering that I do more closely resembles free-associations. Only later, during, say, a second draft, will I go in and heighten momentum on purpose.
At what point in the writing process do your characters get named?
They get named very, very early; then their names sometimes get changed very late. But one of the pleasures for me (as I am sure is true for all writers) is the naming. We know when a name is right, though sometimes we can’t explain why. I like the way the unconscious works during the picking of names, leading the writer toward certain qualities in a character that a name either amplifies, or desperately tries to hide.
Do you toy over how major events play out or basically write them as they come to you, revise, and move on?
I barrel through as they come to me. Later, looking them over, I am often appalled, and so I revise.
Are you able to talk a bit more about how you like to develop and reveal aspects of your characters?
I never really picture the characters, but instead I just let them kind of appear as the ideas in a story deepen. Once the ideas solidify, I try to enrich the characters; I never want them to just “be” there like people idly sitting in a park. I want them to have some kind of dynamic role, even if I don’t initially know what it is.
What’s a story got to do under your typing fingers to make you feel awake to its potential?
The writing has to excite me, thrill me, make me want to rip through it. I love that crazy, sick, overstimulated feeling you get when you’re writing well.
Do you think a person can see themselves as well as we can see the actions of characters in novels?
No, I think we are all blind to ourselves for most of our lives.
Are people in it together or inherently more selfish?
In life? We are frightened of dying and need solace all the time. Selfish, definitely, but human, which makes it all understandable.
Do you write short stories?
Not usually. I tend to like the big bag of a novel.
What’s an important film for you?
“The Lady Vanishes,” by Alfred Hitchcock. Funny, frightening, moving, beautiful, and old now, very old.
Do you go see any foreign films in the movie theatres?
Yes, once in a while, although more and more my movie-watching takes place at home.
Who is a really great auteur type filmmaker you can’t get enough of?
What’s some of your favorite short stories?
Alice Munro’s “Child’s Play.” Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been.” James Joyce’s “Clay.” “Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.”
Who writes the wildest short stories?
Mary Robison is pretty wild. James Joyce is too.
Do you hang out at many of the interesting-sounding literary or other NYC events that the rest of the world’s agape over when they read NYer etc, must it all balance with hunkering down over the keys, writing?
Most of my friends are writers, so I guess when we get together it’s a writers’ thing, in a way. We do go to readings and lectures in NYC, certainly. As far as whether the world would be agape… Does the world want to sit around and eat cheese with writers and talk about books? Maybe in, oh, 1982 it did, but I don’t think it does to that degree anymore. All the writers I know are nervous about the future of books and writing, but everyone balances the cheese-eating and even reading-going with serious productivity. We don’t know what will happen, but we just keep doing what we know how to do. What else is there?
What’s a remarkable novel you’ve read recently?
Here’s a great one: Old Filth, by Jane Gardam. It’s masterful! (See, I even used an exclamation point. I felt the need to exclaim over this one…)
I interviewed you for my website when The Middle Stories was published, and you said many astounding things, and offered many fascinating, provocative ideas. Your story collection was quite the same — alarming, prescient, familiar, scary, and full of wit. Now, your third book is out, your second novel, and I have a new look for my website. I upgraded just in time to interview you again. In that period of eight years though, you have developed and designed many personal websites — before I ask you about your new book, will you talk a little about your experience with the web, what it’s meant to you as an artist, and how you approach the medium, creatively?
You have so much up there now! Before it was just a photograph of your bookshelf with a few links!
Margaux and I always talk about how it’s nice to have a website because you can change it when your mood changes, to suit what you now know or think is important, while you can’t change a book or painting once it’s out there. So it’s art that can evolve with you. One day the website feels great and like a real representation of what you’re interested in, and a week later it feels out-of-date and worthless. It’s neat to be sensitive to those changes. A person’s website can really be a living artwork, a changing artwork, with no record of what it was.
I’ll only ask one more internet question, to segue to conversation about your book. Your new novel How Should A Person Be? discusses ideas surrounding idolatry, art, desire, fame, celebrity, and influence. Social networking has given audiences a feeling of unfiltered access to the people who fascinate them, in a medium that feels more intimate, but is still very much an entertainment valve. But there’s the opportunity to actually communicate, which is so strange. Have you been in contact with any celebrities online?
I follow Steve Martin on Twitter. To me, he feels like the most celebrity of all the celebrities that exist today. He’s not so great on Twitter, but no one is. It’s like we’re at the beginning of a new expressive medium and no one knows quite what to do with it, so it’s always this weird artificial mixture of self-promotion and attempts and humour and forwading interesting things – I think to counter the self-promotion – and failed attempts at communication, and shoddy, transparent networking, and name-dropping. It’s like we’re all babies.
Perhaps this decade was the first in which becoming celebrity outweighed our culture’s fascination with celebrities. Has celebrity been democratized?
Maybe. Someone misquoted the Andy Warhol quote to me the other day, not realising she was doing it. She said, “It’s like Andy Warhol said, ‘In the future we’ll all be famous for fifteen seconds.’” I was like, Fifteen MINUTES! But fifteen minutes seems impossibly long now.
Do you make a distinction between fame and celebrity? There are people now, like Paris Hilton, who are celebrities first, and then do various things with that celebrity. Fame seems to come from having done something in particular?
I’ve never thought about it before. To me those words have always been interchangeable. I don’t think there’s a single person in the world who deserves the level of fame they have today. Who deserves to have their name passed down through the ages? That would be great if we all, everyone today, agreed to it – shook hands over that: None of our names will outlast our bodies. Agreed. What freedom! It would be a much more friendly world. We should be the first generation to say, Forget it. We should all, collectively, opt out of posterity.
Were you seeking, and what did you find then, in the eroticism or neuroticism of becoming celebrity — not the obsession with celebrity, but the act of trying to make oneself a celebrity?
I discovered – and I think Margaux discovered, too – just from me taping her and writing down what she said — that it must be impossibly hard to be a famous person unless you’re okay with misrepresentation. You’d have to understand that who you are and who your persona is – that thing that celebrity attaches to – are radically different. If not, celebrity would become a highly painful state, because then you’d always be trying to attend to your image, which is idolatry.
I’m trying to think of a male equivalent to the pure celebrity of Paris Hilton. I wonder if that kind of pure erotic celebrity is only granted to young men if they die prematurely.
Rock stars, too, though – that’s pure erotic celebrity, right? Jack White and so on?
Who else in fameworld fascinates you?
Just Steve Martin.
In writing this book, you often thought to describe it as something like making a Reality novel — as a response to Reality TV. But your new novel is also wonderfully indebted to Henry Miller and the many autobiographical novelists of that first wave of the sexual revolution, sensual humiliationists who made their obscurity legendary — all of which is now mainstream enough to be TV. Can you tell me a bit about your thoughts on the historical parallels between novelists and Reality TV stars?
I love Henry Miller. I’m so glad you brought him up! It’s wonderful to think about him in relation to the cast of The Hills. I think it’s true that sometimes an artist has to use themselves in their work – like Cindy Sherman did, or Agnes Varda in Les Plages d’Agnes – in order to get people to pay attention. All humans are interested in their limits and capacities, and I think these days we all sort of feel like we can’t learn about our limits and capacities from fiction, because fictional characters can do anything. But when you’re looking at journalism or memoir or autobiographical novels – well, that’s about real people, right? So the limits and capacities of those real people surely tells us something about our own limits and capacities.
Both Henry Miller and Heidi Montag are pretty playful about persona – like that totally wasn’t Henry Miller, and I’m sure that totally isn’t Heidi Montag; obviously they’ve both used life as an artistic medium – and their selves as characters in it.
I think it’s like Cubism, but instead of collapsing the foreground and background, you collapse life and art.
Your openness about sexuality in the book is a little unlike Reality TV — it’s more common for novels to have the kind of candour you employ, TV still has to be shy. But I like this idea you begin with that along with the painting of the nude, the readymade urinal, the real sex act is now art, too. Is this the sexual revolution documented in, and accentuated by, Reality TV?
I think the sexual revolution is documented in, and accentuated by internet porn, not Reality TV. I don’t think reality TV has anything to do say about sex, but it has a lot to say about relationships and dating. These shows where women compete for the love of one man – or one woman picks from a bunch of men – the idea that there are “a bunch of people out there” and you pick the one that’s best – I think that courtship structure is particular to our culture. That’s not how people always conceptualised the search for a mate.
What I learned with Margaux is that there’s something to be said for the inevitable happiness and the inevitable misery and the inevitable compatibility and the inevitable incompatibility of whoever you might be with. Love is not about finding the best person, but has more to do with recognizing the valuable singularity of every person you deal with – and it’s always difficult, and the value is in the difficulty.
I think Reality TV says the value is in the search, and that one’s intelligence is activated in their search is for the “best” or “perfect” one. But the more I learn about life, the more disgusting and destructive that idea becomes.
Your Reality, though, is not TV but language — in breaking up the narrative into memories, transcripts, e-mails, incantations, you also maintain a clear structure — the language guides the reader through your themes quite clearly. I guess I’m thinking right now of the aspects to do with faith, God, Moses, and prayer. Before writing this book, had you ever prayed? There is a prayer in an e-mail Sheila Heti writes to her self, but as Moses might write it. Has this book brought you to a different place in terms of that big question, that first step beyond?
I was not someone who ever prayed, really, and am still not, but I think it’s one of the most beautiful human acts possible. It doesn’t matter whether there’s a God who hears; just the idea of a human humbling themselves is very profound – I don’t mean the kind of prayer where you ask for something, but the kind of prayer that is about thanks and awe of what surrounds us.
In your novel, there’s a little mention of doing the I Ching and some other experiments with random actions — did this process of letting chance decide one’s actions help you at all in writing the book?
Yeah. A whole section of the book was written with a contrivance of various cards with numbers on them and a dice and lists of words and a map – I was like a D&D geek. It worked really well for two weeks, then it stopped working. But it was very useful for generating scenes that I couldn’t have come up with otherwise. Basically, it was an elaborate way of combining real things from life in a way that they could be made into fiction, because it’s hard to fictionalise what you’ve experienced and is real. So one list was a list of “actions of the gods” and the other was “contingent variables” and the other was “human gestures” and there was one more list, and these lists came from distilling 600 scenes I wrote, on the advice of Robert McKee, who said that no good writer writes one scene; they write 600. So I wrote 600 scenes – each a paragraph long, and distilled each scene’s essence and made them into these lists… and then the die and the cards led me to combine words from these lists in a random fashion, and from those four words – which had depth because they came from those scenes – I wrote a bunch of new, imagined scenes.
One book I’m reminded of, have you ever read Andre Breton’s novel Nadja?
No. I used to really like Breton – when I was 18 – and then I got a bit older and he reminded me too much of all the pompous men I was meeting who believed they were starting literary movements!
What’s Nadja all about?
Nadja reminded me of the sections in your book with Israel – although Nadja’s a lot less graphic in its obsession with the mate.
What seemed like a crucial book to you while writing How Should A Person Be?
There were a few: A to Z by Andy Warhol. Art and Artists by Otto Rank. Art as Experience by John Dewey. The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. Those were the books I thought about the most. And a bunch of self-help books, but not one in particular. And the Bible, of course.
What seems like a crucial book for you today? Yesterday?
Yesterday I liked The Normal Personality by Stephen Reiss, which argues that personality is an assemblage of values – and he gives, I think, 16 possible values. And any combination of those values is “normal,” like one can really value and be driven by success and romanticism and family, and that’s normal, but also normal is to be driven by athleticism and status. He also makes the point that good marriages occur when people with similar values marry. It’s not rocket-science, but it’s the kind of science I love, which is when people try to make science from the human sprit.
Today I want to read “The Female Eunuch” by Germaine Greer.
Part of your inspiration for the book was to search for a way to be more at-ease, less neurotic about book-writing, to emulate Margaux Williamson, a close friend of yours and a happy painter. Or did Margaux end up becoming more neurotic?
She became a public writer, with her amazing movie review blog, Movie Is My Favourite Word. And she does that neurotic writer thing of worrying over sentences now, which is really the essence of neuroticism: a sentence in your head that is worried about a sentence. So I’m happy to say I made things worse for her, while she made things better for me. I have much less patience with my desire to make things beautiful all the time. I’m pretty sure it was bad for me and resulted in my work and life being rather lacking in oxygen.
Are you pleased to have had the chance to see and document the Miami Art Fair in its heyday? Would you think going back might reignite some of the same ideas you had about the strange democratization of the pursuit of fame? It’s still happening but so much has changed, it’s even funnier now.
Wow, what’s it like now? I feel really amazed to think that we were there at its peak – its total, decadent, insane peak. I really felt sorry for the art there, but not for the artists.
It’s so rare one is at the right place at the right time, but that was definitely the right place at the right time for us. One has to give thanks for those moments in one’s life. When were you last at the right place at the right time, Lee?
I really can’t recall ever being in the right place at the right time.
Did you find a narrative to the ascent to Famous, is it a state of ease or anxiety? fixed or fluxed? is it a vice?
I think it’s a vice, yes – vanity, idolatry, avarice. You make yourself into an icon to get there. You can’t actually be what a human is – this creature whose only nobility, only divinity – is that it changes and learns and grows. Instead, you have to be this fixed thing, like a car, so that other humans can understand you and worship you. Wanting to be famous is wanting to be worshipped. I think that creates a tremendous amount of anxiety when it works, because being worshipped is a sickness for both the worshipper and the worshipped – it’s a perversion of the human relation.
I think many people in this culture feel a particular kind of anxiety but don’t know where it comes from, and I think a lot of that contemporary anxiety comes from this unconscious desire to model ourselves – our beings – after things like perfume bottles.
Do the tabloids matter?
Yes. I can always ruin a good day by looking in a supermarket tabloid. The problem is they are so certain about who is important. But who is important is your mother, your father, your brother, your wife, your best friend, your grocer… The tabloids fuck that up.
Are you fond of the kind of writing that appears in magazines, and what do you find is the best way to prevent writing in that fashion?
That’s a neat question. I never thought about “the kind of writing that appears in magazines” before, but you’re right. There’s something about it that’s different from writing that appears elsewhere. I once worked as a magazine editor and the main question you had to answer at editorial meetings – if you wanted the magazine to cover something – was: “Why is this important NOW?” In fact, nothing is any more important now than anything else, so I think there is a kind of desperation in magazine articles to prove to the editor and some imaginary reader who supposedly cares about NOW that this is important NOW!
I believe that’s why Lawrence Weschler quit writing for The New Yorker – because it had once been a place (like The Believer or Geist magazine are today) – that didn’t care about NOW. It just cared about good writing and good stories. Then that changed. The stories he wanted to write about were things that seemed important for all time, and that’s not what magazines are selling: they’re selling urgency, the feeling that if you don’t buy the magazine you’ll be out-of-step all month.
Did you go through many revisions? Are there parts of How Should A Person Be? that didn’t suit the final manuscript that your readers may see published later in lit journal or magazine?
Nothing but revisions. There are chapters that could have been in it, but aren’t, and chapters that are, that easily might not have been if I had worked on it six months more or less. I thought for a day about putting some of the sentences that I liked but that didn’t end up in the book on Twitter, but for one thing there weren’t enough characters on Twitter, and for another, it ultimately seemed stupid.
Is part of the project still ongoing?
What do you like to see in a finished sentence (you write some perfectly epic lines of prose)?
It has to sound like it does in my head. I’m still disappointed with some sentences I edited in The Middle Stories to please my editor’s sense of how a certain sentence should be. Every time I read those sentences, I feel a pain. It’s like music, like a wrong note. I just think it needs to have its own music, which is probably the music of my metabolism, just as your sentences are the music of your metabolism. Or maybe it’s like a gait. Reading my writing feels to me like walking down the street, and when I read a sentence that I’ve compromised on, it’s like I stumble. I assume the reader stumbles too, but I might be wrong.
What do you prefer to see from contemporary fiction (in this case I mean another person’s writing)?
Just something really alive. The best genre of fiction today is probably amateur porn – the written kind – found on bulletin boards on the web; really out-there stuff like incest porn and other taboo stuff like having sex with animals. It’s not that these works have great literary qualities, but they have something better – they’re vibrant and vital – because the author HAD to write it. Much contemporary fiction lacks a connection to real life; it’s like someone standing up and singing in a warbly voice beside a piano; it’s some recital in a 19th-century drawing room, and you have to smile and nod while they display their talent. But that amateur porn stuff – they’re real writers, to me.
I don’t know if you can answer for yourself if it feels different now that the book is published and the overlap with your life and the text is no longer a concern, but I know this novel has been an important part of the lives of your friends, can you talk a little about the feeling of having these overlapping projects completed?
This is the happiest time of my life.
Thank you, Sheila!
The latest issue of Border Crossings is available. There’s an interview with Ed Pien I look forward to reading. I wrote a profile of artist Amy Lockhart for the issue.
Also my friend Jack Goldbach has done an interview with Christopher Sorrentino for Matrix in which they discuss the life and writing of Sorrentino’s father, the late Gilbert S., who wrote many astonishing novels that are hardly read up here in Canada but highly regarded in lit circles down in the US. I first came across both father and son’s writing in the journal Conjunctions.
by Lee | Filed under Fiction
I was talking with my class last night about Juan José Saer’s enigmatic short story ‘Baked Mud’ in the anthology Words Without Borders, and there are two more short pieces of his translated into English online at their site. I am fascinated by Juan José Saer’s writing. I’ve read all there is translated in English — very little, that is — my favorite is still the novel my aunt recommended, The Witness. Hardly any of his books are translated, about four of the over twenty he wrote. He is less well-known than say, Roberto Bolaño or Javier Marías, but so far as I can tell, he is their literary equal.
Anyway, it reminded me to go back and look again at the Words Without Borders website and immediately I went searching for my favorite story there, one that I remember reading not that long ago, when Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize last year. This is her story ‘On Packing,’ which recalls the life of a woman at the time of her sexual awakening, under the oppressive watchful eye of the Romanian secret service, Securitate, and communist leader Nicolae Ceauşescu.
I also noticed this story in the Guardian about the head of the Securitate which is kind of bitterly amusing, as he admits he was spying on Müller and tapping her phone and intimidating her, but thinks she’s a paranoid delusional because she over-reacted to their tactics, which he considered lighter compared to some of the others they spied on.
Another wonderful story I found online at the Guardian which mentions Romania’s communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, is by the great Hungarian novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai. It is called ‘Something is Burning Outside’ and features a strange visitor to a writer’s retreat near a remote crater lake.
I love Jeet Heer’s rebuttal to André Alexis’s essay ‘The Long Decline’ printed in Walrus magazine regarding the state of the critical literary review in Canada. Here we have two of Canada’s best critical minds stewing over the relative value of serious book reviews versus snarky slams or pat applause. The debate is worth a look, and John Metcalf’s obscure journal of letters Canadian Notes & Queries is strangely considered Ground Zero to both arguments. The magazine just got redesigned by Heer’s colleague in the comic world, Seth. Time to subscribe!
by Lee | Filed under Fiction
The Nerve is a short story I published in The Walrus, available online, and I’ll copy-paste it after the fold in case an apocalypse destroys Walrus’s server, and one still wants to read romantic fiction after such kind of catastrophe that would cause that.