Elephant Man Comes Out

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Another hot dream. I woke in a sweat. My chest felt sticky, my erection painful. Sal’s big body had crowded me all night. Sometimes her broad back against me felt like a dam pinning my pent-up life force. I got up quickly and had a shower, and when she got up, eye-smudged and groggy to get the baby, I was efficient, even curt as I passed her a cup of coffee.  She was fat and innocent and I felt like a shit.

I knew my son had a birthday party to go to that day—Saturday August 27, 11 to 1. Every time I went to open the fridge for the last two weeks, I’d seen that invitation emblazoned with bright balloons, stuck under an anti-bullying magnet. I realized then I’d been seeing 11 to 1 as a bit of an escape. I vaguely knew the boy, Liam, and the family. I met them once at a La Leche League picnic—a group of earnest people I feel no connection to, even though my wife is a leader.

She sat by the window breastfeeding the baby, one hand around a mug and the other cupping her enormous brown breast. Propped into the crevasse between her big belly and her thigh, the baby applied suction to the hidden nipple, and around that little mouth, working rhythmically, spread the puckered aureole of my wife’s breast, stippled with long black hairs like a dunce cap askew the vast mound of veined flesh.

“I’ll take Pete to the party, “ I said, looking away from her bare breast and out the window to the silent green park, dotted white with seagulls.

“Oh, okay. I was going to….” the baby gurgled and farted and with a little cry came off the breast. My wife fussed with her, repositioning the flannel-wrapped sausage back onto the long damp nipple.  “You can have some time to yourself with the baby” I said, watching one large seagull open his wings.

Pete was playing Lego in his bedroom. “Hey kiddo, I’m taking you to Liam’s party. We’re leaving in half an hour.”

Pete looked up at me, serious brown eyes in his pudgy face, a lollipop stick protruding from his dark lips.

“Where the fuck did you get a lollipop?”

“Lady at the grocery store,” he mumbled.

“Give it to me,” I opened my hand, “now.”

“No” said Pete, arching away. Little shit looked at me, defiant eyes, wild crinkly hair framing his fat face, a line of purple syrup dribbling from his mouth. He looked demented.  Sometimes I looked at that kid and thought “he’s mine?”

“Whatever,” I said turning my back. Losing battle. Genes. My wife was fat, my kid getting fat, even the baby had rolls of podge.  And today there would be more sugar—a cake and ice-cream, goody bags. Jesus.

Liam lived in a little stucco house a block away from an elementary school. The front steps and door were shabby, a stack of old newspapers moldering in the corner and a bag of garbage sitting atop the stack, like nobody had the energy to get this stuff into the bins down in the driveway.  Sometimes homeschoolers were like that. Home all day with their kids, yet can’t get it together to do simple chores.

The door opened. Lily, the mother, beamed her smile. Pete shoved his gift into Lily’s hand and darted around her, yelling “Liam, Liam! Where are you?”

“Sorry, he’s really excited,”

“Oh, no worries! Liam’s excited too.”

We stood there together at the door entry, her smile lessening a little at the corners as she jiggled a baby on her hip.

“I’m Lily, by the way.”

“Oh, yes, Nils.” As both of her small hands were occupied, we both looked at my outstretched hand and laughed.

“Well, are you just dropping him, then? Or do you want to stay?”  she asked.

I hesitated. “Well if you don’t mind.”

I hadn’t thought about what I would actually do from 11 to 1. For some reason a coffee at Starbucks with yesterday’s Globe spread before me seemed sad. Maybe I’ll stay and observe how the other half lives.

“Oh come in, come in,” she chimed, leading me into the living room, decorated with streamers. Scuffed, coloured boxes of toys lined one wall, bookshelves lined the other, and two big sagging sofas faced each other like old drunks.

“Coffee?” she called back to me as she started to fill a kettle.

“Sure, that would be nice.”

“My husband is just finishing up some balloon blowing in the rec room—it’s a secret game so don’t say anything to the kids. I’ll keep the game a secret from you, too! You’ll love it” she chuckled.

And then she did the most remarkable thing:  She shifted the grizzling baby from her hip into the crook of her arm, lifted her t-shirt to expose an alert pink nipple, slid the baby onto it, then cradled the egg head with her splayed hand—all in a series of expert moves.

I felt embarrassed then, to have watched her virtuosity with such curiosity, so I quickly turned away to look out the large windows wrapping the kitchen nook, onto the compost heap in the back, just in time to see a shiny rat running across the debris with an apple core in his mouth.

More kids started to arrive with their parents, but none of the other parents stayed. They seemed eager to be free of their children for a couple of hours. People hugged one another and handed off gifts in loud voices at the crowded doorway, as if insisting on how much they loved family life. Children, all boys, were running around the small house, yelling and laughing.  I sat safely in the kitchen nook where I had holed up, nursing a cup of coffee, watching, listening, feeling my gut loosen, my mind soften. The children’s shouts seemed far away.

Liam’s father emerged from the basement with another child—a toddler. So they had three kids?  Wow.

“Hello,” he approached me with a lopsided grin, hand outstretched.

“Oh hello, I’m Nils, Pete’s dad” I half rose from the nook to shake hands with this gangly man.

“I’m Liam’s dad, Miles. Just finished the one-hundredth balloon, and I’m knackered,” he laughed, blowing a raspberry from puckered lips in a demonstration of the work he’d been busy at below.

Pretty soon the birthday party started to take on a shape. Lily and Miles organized the kids in the living room and announced there would soon be a soccer game in the schoolyard, followed by lunch and cake and presents and finally a special game in the basement—a secret! Then goody bags and good-byes at 1 o’clock.  The kids swarmed and pushed each other and shook the wrapped gifts piled onto one of the couches.

I sat in the kitchen nook, feeling quite proprietorial by now.  I liked this corner. It felt safe.  The kitchen table was strewn with used coffee cups, a colouring book and crayons, a stack of library books in one corner. The other adults had things in hand—there was nothing to do. My son was taken care of. I liked the coffee made from beans from a local roastery. It was strong with real cream.  I liked the big panel of windows behind me. I could turn my head and see the narrow yard with a rusty play gym and the compost pile, home to happy rats. I could see the sagging homemade cake perched atop the fridge, the goody bags lined up on the top shelf in the Ikea-styled kitchen.  The sun had come out and I felt the warmth on my neck and a pleasant breeze from the open window beside me.  The kids’ voices seemed as if they were coming from a distant country in another language.  I liked the feel of the smooth cushion under my bare thighs.

Miles shepherded the kids out the door with a soccer ball in one hand and holding the hand of his toddler with the other. He managed everybody in his gentle tenor, punctuated by chuckles: “C’mon guys, it’s not far, just a block, but let’s all stay together now! Last one there is a green frog,” and then he hopped like a frog for a few meters while the boys shrieked at him.

Lily stood at the open door, watching them go, jiggling the baby, talking softly.

“Oooh look at Daddy going bye-byes and all the kids. See your brothers?”      Then she turned abruptly, flushed, “Oh I’m sorry, did you want to go with them? Go play soccer? I’m sure Miles could use the help. . . .” she trailed off.

“No, no, actually I’m really enjoying sitting here, if you don’t mind. I don’t often get to just sit. It’s very relaxing.”

“Oh, yes, of course,” she smiled. The baby’s eyes were closed and it leaned into her small breasts.

“I’m just going to put her down for a nap. Perfect timing, really,” she said, and padded down the hall to the dark nethers of the house, no doubt piled with cloth diapers, toys and more toys, precarious towers of books on attachment parenting  beside the messy bed.

I leaned back into the cushioned nook, my hands on my thighs, feeling peaceful after the roiling night, feeling my breath go in and out.  I pulled the stack of library books closer and—with a quiver—recognized the title on the spine of the bottom book. A Boys Own Story, by Edmund White.  What are the chances! I pulled it from the bottom, and looked at the cover, a beautiful bronzed teenage boy in a tank top, his sharp profile framed by dark messy locks. A book I had finished only a week ago. What are the chances of us both reading this somewhat obscure 1982 memoir by the same guy who wrote The Joy of Gay Sex? Or maybe Miles was the one who had taken it out of the library? That would be even weirder. Feels like a sign.

In the opening scene, White describes, in erotic detail, how he, 15, and a young visitor to his summer cottage, 13, fuck each other every night in a narrow cot, with the boy’s younger brother asleep in a cot beside them.  Some of the lines had kept coming back to me, stirring me, after I read it.

I opened the book and found the page.  “Now that he’d completely relaxed I could get deeper and deeper into him.”

I registered tingles in my groin area.

And then I skipped down to this:  “‘I’m getting close,’” White said to the other boy. “‘Want me to pull out?’

‘Go ahead,’” the boy said “‘Fill ‘er up.’”

Oh sweet Jesus. This kid welcomes the rush of ejaculate into his butt like a tank welcoming the flow of gas—my God that made me horny. As I re-read these lines, I felt my prick start to thicken. I closed the book, but continued to hold it in my hands, touching it almost tenderly now, recognizing again how much yearning it had stirred in me.

After a minute or two, Lily padded back down the hall, toward me, smiling.

“Out like a light.  I’ve got to get the lunch ready for the kids, but just sit there—it’s fine.”

I had made no move to get up to help her. I just smiled broadly, fully relaxed now, holding the book in my hands.  Was it something about this messy house, the coincidence of the book, her open smile, the drone of lawnmowers on nearby lawns, the caffeine buzz in my head, the arousal that made every pore a thirsty mouth?

Lily started to pull things out of the fridge – mustard and ketchup in plastic squeeze bottles and packages of wieners.

“I bought both meat hot dogs and tofu hot dogs because I happened to know some of the kids are vegetarian, including ours” she said brightly, with an inquiring look on her face as if to say “and what about you and yours?”

“Oh, we all eat meat,” I said. “But I’m not sure how much real meat is in those things,” I laughed.  And then lifted the book up to show the cover.
“Did you like White’s memoir?”

“Oh my god, so good!” she said, putting two pots of water to boil on the stove and fumbling around for scissors to cut open the plastic packages of wieners.  “Have you read it?” she looked over her shoulder at me.

“Yes, just recently. It seems such a coincidence that you have, too.”

“Oh, I belong to a book club, and we’re doing a year of memoirs, actually. It was my turn to pick, and I was at a loss. So my brother, who’s gay, was here for dinner and raved about it. So I figured—let’s give it a try!”

And here my voice took a leap out into the warm air.

“The opening chapter—that was brilliant. I read it more than once” I said, feeling a blush creep up my neck. “Every time, I got hard as a rock.” Nervous laughter. There was no turning back now. It was out there, hanging in the air, that boys having sex made me hard, this thing that had rolled around inside me, a lump deep in my gut, a greasy red coil that fueled my erections every morning.  I wondered if her back had stiffened a little, hearing it, or did I imagine that? Practice, I told myself. Practice this. Don’t expect approval, man. Don’t expect anything.

“Sorry, Lily. That was TMI, I know.”

She turned square, facing me, wiping her hands on her cut-offs.

“Not at all,” she laughed. “Do you know, I felt aroused by that scene too? Don’t you think we’re all polymorphously perverse? Freud was really onto something.”

That got me sitting up at attention. “But did you know Freud said that it is under the influence of seduction that children became polymorphously perverse, just like so-called bad women are swayed to perversion by seducers. He did not approve. To him polymorphously perverse was a distortion of sexuality.  You know he was a product of his time—a real prude.”

“Hmm,” she sat down across from me. “How do you know so much about him?”

“Oh, Freud has held some fascination for me over the years.”

She looked at me quizzically, then got up, went to the stove, and started to lift the pots to drain the dogs.  “I’ll put these to keep warm in the oven. Help me get the cake finished? I haven’t frosted it yet.”

“Okay, sure.”

“Tell me more about Freud, you dark horse,” she said.  “Or, actually, tell me more about getting hard from reading Edmund White.” She looked me in the eye. “Seriously, I don’t judge.  I don’t tell. I am an impartial listener. And I grew up with gay.” Then she laughed and started to lay tofu dogs on a cookie tray.

“I’ll take it,” and I joined her laughter.

* * *

When Miles and the kids returned from the soccer field, Lily and I were working side by side putting the hot dogs into buns, pouring juice into glasses.  “How did it go?” Lily called, and Miles, in response, came up behind her, sliding his arms around her.

“Fun, fun, fun. We’re hungry, baby.”

Pete rushed up and punched me in the leg.

“Why’re you here, Dad? You’re the only one. The only parent. You can go now” he said, his dark brow furrowed by the anxiety anything out of the ordinary produced in him.

“It’s okay, Pete, I’ve just been hanging out with Liam’s mom, helping her.” Pete seemed to accept this explanation, and soon there was just the blur of kids eating hot dogs, and then the singing of Happy Birthday, and cake, and Liam tearing gift wrap off of boxes of Lego, a book, some juggling pins, a sketch book. I had reclaimed my nook, and I watched the proceedings, all of it a bit surreal. I could not take back what was said, nor did I want to.

Lily was deep into being a mother. The baby was back on her hip, her other hand gestured and grappled with a lighter to light candles, squish balls of gift paper, and rescue bits of hot dog from between sofa cushions. Miles snapped pics with his iPhone, laughing frequently.

“Good gift for you Liam, a sketchbook – nice one – young artist.”

The kids were playing with the new toys—a dozen bodies moving rapidly and making noise in the small living room. I watched safely from my nook, sipping juice. Then Lily did a remarkable thing. She handed the baby to Miles, leaped onto the coffee table, and cried “Elephant stomp! Elephant stomp! Elephant stomp!”

Each time she said it, she punched the air with her little fists on the “stomp” and stamped her naked feet, making it into a war holler. In only a few seconds, the kids caught the idea and echoed “Elephant stomp! Elephant stomp!” Letting toys drop to the ground, they punched at the air with sticky fists.

“Okay guys, the game’s down in the basement, but first you have to put on your elephant feet.” Lily took a stack of brown paper bags she had placed at the end of the coffee table and started handing them out, two for each boy along with two rubber bands.

“I’ll show you what to do.”

But before she demonstrated how to make elephant feet, she strode over to me in my protected corner—“You too!” she said, smiling. “It’s fun!”

I hesitated, but then I took the bags and watched. Lil put one bag over each bare foot, securing them with rubber bands around her ankles.

“Now I have elephant feet,” she crowed, stomping them up and down, and causing the baby in Miles’s arms to startle and wail. She laughed and helped the kids on with their bags and rubber bands.  Soon they were all shuffling down the basement steps in elephant boots, following Lily, laughing and talking excitedly, except Miles, who stayed above, shushing the baby. I trailed behind, my paper boots making every step uncertain.

Lily opened the door of a large rec room strung everywhere with dozens of coloured Christmas lights glowing on a sea of softly bouncing balloons. The children stopped quietly for a moment, looking. One of them exhaled loudly, “Jeez Louise.” We all laughed at that.

The first kid in the line, my kid, yelled “Hey, let’s stomp ‘em” and soon all of the young bodies smashed into the softly lit space and were stomping on the balloons that burst with cracking noises, like guns in rapid fire.

Lily hadn’t needed to show them what to do. They knew. Then she grabbed my hand and pulled me in. “Let’s do the stomp, elephant man,” and she brought her right arm up against her face, pursed her lips, waved her arm up and down, pushed a loud stream of air from her tight lips. At the same time she lifted her knees and splayed them in an African dance. She was a mad she-elephant trumpeting, waving her trunk in the soft jungle light, bursting jungle balls in heavy-footed splendour.

Laughing, I made my arm into a trunk, trumpeted my own rich high-pitched sounds into the mix, bursting my own bubbles in the dim cave, protected by the dark.

Four things

 

“I think your financial guy is the same financial guy as my financial guy.”

Oh my god, thought Shig, did I really just hear that sentence? She took another twenty from another customer for a double Americano, and—making change—placed the plastic purple and blue bills in an outstretched hand. Her septum ached from the new piercing. Was it getting infected? She kept touching it throughout the morning, moving the ball closure ring back and forth through the tender hole. It was akin to the tongue going to the sore tooth. Is it all right? Am I leaking snot?

Shig, tall and willowy with short-cropped dark hair, drove her life in lists of four. Her manner since childhood had been to hold back and plan her movements, which imbued her with a tentative grace. She approached people with a protean, mobile face—she was ready to smile if you smiled, ready to turn away if you ignored her. There was a guarded, wait-and-see look in her brown hooded eyes.  She often took her cues from others in the life outside her skin, yet her interior life felt mostly like a cathedral, orderly and spacious, filled with light, demarcated by quartets of pews.

The cathedral image had formed when she was fifteen and they had read Raymond Carver’s story in English 10.  Two pictures stayed with her: One, of the full-bearded blind man enclosing the narrator’s hand in his own as together they drew a cathedral.  A cathedral is a place built, the narrator said, because men want to be closer to God. And the other picture was what she imagined the interior of the cathedral was like—her interior, really. Instead of blood and bones, a heart, a liver, a pancreas, she had ribs of stone, an airy dome, stained glass windows, warm coloured light, cherry wood pews with velvet cushions.

Right now everybody wanted Americanos. The head barista Blondie is working quickly, expertly tamping down coffee into three brew baskets, plugging portafilters snugly into La Marzocco (they called the big espresso machine Zocco for short).  When Blondie interviewed her for the job on Skype, Shig wanted to ask were you named for Blondie in the comic? Or were you named for the other Blondie, the  singer?  Shig’s mom had an old Parallel Lines L.P. in a milk crate in the basement, and she liked to look at it sometimes. She liked it that Blondie didn’t feel the need to smile in that photo whereas most of the goofy looking men surrounding her had grins on.  Or maybe Blondie was called Blondie simply because she was blonde, dyed blonde. Blondie did look a little like the fifties comic with her glossy wheat-coloured wave curving over her brow and her shapely figure and tight clothes. But comic Blondie didn’t have tattoos, thought Shig.  Or at least visible ones.

As she took orders and made change, Shig started thinking about her own name. It started when she was four and had hair long enough to put up. She was mesmerized by the women with chignons that she saw in magazines and on billboards. “I want one!” she told her mother, and from then on, for perhaps two years, Chelsea would ask for a chignon every day, and her mother complied. The only girl in kindergarten with her hair up in a fashionable do.  Her brother, two years older, insisted on calling her Shig, short for chignon (yes, the g is silent, but he was six at the time and just starting to read). The name stuck.  And now Chelsea was a thing of history, and Shig was her identity, even though her hair was super short now, and she hadn’t worn a chignon since high school.  Sometimes she was even Shiggy when a friend was being affectionate.  Back on task, Shig, she told herself. Change, cups, two Americanos, one machiatto with legs.

Shig rhymes with dig, and her first boyfriend, Aaron, had written a ditty for her on the back of a McDonald’s napkin: My sweet Shig, You I dig.  But Shig also rhymed with prig.  Aaron had called her that when she didn’t want to remove her clothes in public. A group of her friends took Ecstasy after graduation and had ended up dancing around a bonfire in the woods, semi-nude.  Sure enough, she had taken the Ecstasy, greedy for the experience, but then she was the only one who refused to take her shirt off.  Oh Shig, You’re such a prig. The boys and the other girls tore off their tops and flung them into the bushes, laughing.  She remembered the blur of coloured bras in the firelight.  And the boys’ chests, bronzed and luminous.

Still, there were times when the cathedral flung open its doors to outer life, and she let that interior glow guide her.  That was happening more often.

Just after her nineteenth birthday, Shig started to think about leaving her hometown of Kamloops. She and Aaron had broken up, and she had no interest in going to Thompson Rivers University like her brother.  She was ready for a change from the job at Starbucks and the home routines that had played out since childhood.

Shig imagined how it might go if she announced her intention. There would be an argument about why she should stay, followed by grudging acceptance, the U-Haul rental, arranged by her Dad, the choosing and packing items, supervised by her mother, and maybe a family party to say good-bye, to which her friends would be invited via her mother’s Facebook page. To Shig’s dismay, all of her friends were Facebook friends with her mother.   Basically her parents would take over.

She wanted to do it alone, to start over, to strike out. Her parents’ love felt like a hoodie that was warm and protective, but starting to feel too warm.  The hood blinded her from seeing peripherally, and she was aching to throw it off.  Shig started by searching Victoria Craigslist every morning before work. That way, she thought, I will catch the right job and nab the room in the best shared house before someone else does. Around that time, Shig’s cathedral started to bloom with light.

Always disciplined and methodical, at age six Shig had lined up her beanie babies in categories (cats, dogs, reptiles) at nine, kept her pencils and felties organized by colour in Bonne Maman jam jars on her bookshelf.  She had decided at age eight to get better at gymnastics and forced herself to practice every day for 30 minutes. Soon she was winning medals.

Now she applied the discipline to a secret plan—to find a home and a job in Victoria without assistance, and to make it all happen with minimal parental involvement.  Loco parentis, she thought. In the place of my parents: me. I can be responsible for me.  And I can do it all in lists of four.

She had made it happen—saved her money, found a place to rent in a shared house—all arranged without her parents’ knowledge. Nailed a job online after a Skype interview (she had Starbucks experience and that counted for a lot).  Decided not to bring anything but herself and a few books and clothes, thus no need for a U-Haul and her father’s interference.  She took the train two months ago and here she is.

Shig makes lists in her mind, four things at a time as she moves throughout her day. It might be, for example, teeth, boots, cat, earrings. That meant first she would clean her teeth, then put on her boots, then feed the cat, then choose earrings.  (She missed the family cat Ollie the most, followed by her brother, then parents.) This listing kept her focused on the tasks at hand. One of her father’s favourite sayings was “be where your hands are.” That was good. She couldn’t get too far ahead of herself. It kept her on task and in the cathedral when she needed to be.

Sometimes she wrote down her lists of four. She had her little coiled notebook, but when it wasn’t near, she used scraps of paper. Listing was private. Once her brother found a list of four on the floor in the dining room—it must have fallen out of her pocket. “What’s this?  Dishwasher, library books, toast, make-up. Shig, this is your writing. What’s it about?”  She was embarrassed. “Just a list of things to do.” “What? You need to make a list to remind you to eat toast? To put on your make-up?” He laughed and put the list in her palm.  “You’re a sweet strange one Shig.”

Another thing Shig does is wonder about sayings—where did they come from? What’s the meaning? Her grandmother had given her a book for her seventh birthday: Mad as a Wet Hen and other funny idioms.  She loved that book. She still had it—stained and dog-eared, it was one of the few books she had brought with her on the train. And since then Shig had kept a running list of idioms and their meanings. First in notebooks in her neat cursive, then transferred into a Word file when she got a laptop.

And so here she is at Caffe Fantastico, taking orders.  She used lists, determination, the cathedral, her borderline OCD-ness to get here, get this job, get that room, save enough for the septum piercing for her twentieth birthday last week (a gift to myself, she thought). On task: order doppio, take money, make change, clean cups up on Zocco.

The latest idiom on the list troubled her. After she got her nose pierced, she posted a picture on her Facebook page.  Her mother commented, “You look like a bull, Shig. Watch you don’t get led by the nose.” Whoa! She wasn’t prepared for that. Yes, she knew that her mother, though appearing supportive, loving and cool to all of Shig’s friends, could also be sharp and mean in private. But this was public—right on her timeline.  Was this to get back at Shig for taking responsibility for her own move to Victoria? Was this a subtle revenge tactic?

Her parents had been shocked when at dinner one night she made the fait accompli announcement she was leaving. It was as if she had betrayed them. All she was doing was what they had told her to do all of her life. Be responsible for yourself. They were surprised because they were used to her taking her cue from them. Both parents had been hinting about TRU—what would you like to take? Why don’t you do a “fun” year taking classes you are interested in, a try-it-on year?  That’s what we both did, then we found our majors.  We’ll pay for it, honey.  Just figure out what you want to study. But what if she didn’t want to go to University at all? What then? Would the world end?

Domestic cattle, usually bulls, often had their septums pierced and rings inserted, the easier to lead them and control them. To be led by the nose meant to be easily controlled by others.  So was her mother, then, suggesting she was weak, gullible, liable to be controlled? Why the fuck did Shig care so much? The irony, she thought, was that yes—she had been controlled by others, and those others were her parents. She had taken their cues all of her childhood and teenage years. She had been led by the nose. And she had taken steps to change that by executing her plan to move away. And now here she was.

Why did she even friend her mom on Facebook? Because it seemed unkind to ignore the friend request, and she was a kind person, she reminded herself.  She touched the nose ring yet again and noticed the next customer in line looking at her with—what was that—disgust? It looks unsanitary, me touching my nose all day, Shig thought. She asked Rose to take over the cash. “I just need five minutes,” she said, taking off her apron and shimmying around the back of the horseshoe shaped counter. She went out into the bright light of day.  People were scattered over the patio, sitting at the spindly tables, sipping coffee, talking and laughing, some jiggling babies on their knees.

Okay, I need to list, thought Shig walking purposefully down the road away from the cafe. I have five minutes. This is the Shig way—listing makes things better. There is no try, said Yoda, only do. Her father had a t-shirt with some Yoda saying that had shaped her childhood. Don’t try, just do. Just do it. No, that was Nike, not Yoda, but both ideas prevailed in her house.  And now she had to undo this discomfort, this feeling she had somehow capitulated to the “system” by getting a nose ring. She was pissed off at her mother, she was embarrassed, and she was resentful.  Tell Siri set alarm, five minutes, then breathe, then stride, four: turn back at the corner. Shit shit shit shit, it’s time to go back in. She slipped behind the counter, pulled the apron back on, tied it absentmindedly, and started in again at the cash. I don’t need a list of four things to do. I need to just tell my mother to fuck off.  Take the bill, make change, clean cups, put the order slip on Zocco.  One, two, three, four.

“You alright?” asked Blondie, nudging closer to her. “You look upset.”

“I’ll be fine. It’s a stupid thing. Just mad at my mother.”   Then a funny thing popped into her mind. “Gird your loins,” her father used to say, jokingly, as he drove their Jetta around town dropping them off at school or gymnastics. She even remembered him saying it to her as he escorted her into preschool when she was three and still in diapers some of the time. “Gird your diapered loins, Chels.”  My father is so weird, Shig mused with a smile.

That saying, that particular idiom, popped into my head right now because it’s a sign, she thought. I need to gird my loins, I need to protect myself from my mom. She can be mean, and now I need to protect myself. Maybe not my loins, exactly, but she does get me where I am most vulnerable, my sense of autonomy.

During her lunch break, Shig got her iPhone and looked up “gird your loins” in her running list (alphabetical).  She had been thinking it meant to protect oneself as one went into battle. Well not exactly. It means to prepare yourself mentally to do something difficult, and it came from the Bible, where girding up your loins meant to tie up long loose clothes to get them out of the way when you were working or going to war.  In effect, you made a kind of diaper out of those robes men used to wear. So it was still relevant to her situation, she thought. Yes, that’s it. I need to mentally prepare myself to confront my mother and tell her something. . . .  But I’m not sure what yet. But yes. Gird my loins.  Tie up my loose apron and focus.  Except the idea of the diaper kept interfering with her image of being fierce.

At 3:30 p.m. Shig was standing on her front porch, digging around in her deep leather purse for the keys to the house she shared with three others. After letting herself in, she took off her helmet, dropped her stuff and sat on a stool at the kitchen island with her notebook. Lists had been formulating all the way home. When she got anxious, as she was now, the lists got granular.  When she really needed to calm down she would lay out the four things to do on the cathedral pews, like they were little bits of paper, one on each pew. So, one on the first pew, get laptop from room. Two on the second pew, go to Facebook and sign in. Three, on the third pew, take three deep breaths (a way to gird my loins). Four, on the fourth pew, re-read the post. Then I’ll need another list to figure out what to do next. But that’s okay. One thing at a time. Be where your hands are. Cathedral.

Wait, I didn’t eat at lunch. New list. One, bread out of fridge, two, two slices into the toaster, three, cut cheese, four, mayonnaise.   As she sat at the stool chewing her sandwich and swallowing, she started wondering about Raymond Carver and what he had meant.  She had loved the story, but a tug in her solar plexus told her she was missing something important. She wasn’t satisfied with the explanation Mrs. Romney had given, that the narrator had finally realized true sight at the end, a kind of spiritual vision that the blind man already had.  Somehow there was more to it than that.  She liked to think about the blind man’s big paw wrapped around the smaller hand of the narrator, the two of them sitting close together on the couch with Robert’s full beard grazing the narrator’s neck. They had just smoked a big joint. And the wife in the doorway yammering, “what’s happening? What’s going on?” Shig chuckled aloud just thinking about it.

She started working through the list she had made prior to the sandwich, running up to her room, grabbing her laptop, and bringing it back to the kitchen island. She liked sitting here in the afternoon because the sun splashed into the room like a big stream of honeywater.  She logged into Facebook and paused, taking her three deep breaths. As she completed each of her numbered tasks, she picked up the paper from the pew and crumpled it, putting it into her pocket. Not really, of course.  There was no actual paper, no cathedral, but she went through the actions in her recessed interior, where light played over the mosaic floor, the rood cross.

Okay, my loins are girded. She went back to the post she had made to accompany the photo.  Lulu, the woman who had done the piercing, had offered to take a picture of her. Though her nose hurt like hell, Shig was radiant in the photo, proudly showing off her jewelry, eyes sparkling, huge grin, her gamin hair pushed back on her sweaty brow.  She checked the comments underneath and breathing slowly, read through them all to find her mother’s.  “Shig – way to go you wild woman!” “Shiggy you are so brave.”  “You look wonderful” “Shig come home we miss you!” “You look hot” “Hey I want one of those” “Can I come visit, Shig?” all peppered with brightly coloured emojis.  She exhaled, smiling. Her friends were so lovely.

But where was her mother’s post about being led by the nose?  Nowhere to be seen.  She read through the comments again, more slowly. Not there! She closed her eyes for a moment, enjoying the feeling of the sunbath. My cathedral, Shig thought.  She opened her eyes, closed her laptop, and started a list of four.  Laundry, pee, shopping list, email.  No, that should be pee, laundry, email, shopping list.  She felt so good, so satisfied, so content, that she risked a second list of four before she went up to the bathroom. Part one of the shopping list: eggs, almond milk, avocado, kale.

Story and photo by Madeline Walkerimg_0776

 

 

 

Tribe

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This is the story of how I became a drunk and found a tribe. My memory often fails me, so I have quilted over gaps with scrappy fictions, not completely accurate, but not without truth, either.

I was a sweet, reckless 11-year-old, still taking ballet lessons on Saturday mornings. Our instructor—upright, proper, wearing a pencil wool skirt—told us in her English accent not to hold our fingers “like the bunches of bananahs in Lob-ee-laws.”  I wore the garb of the innocent—pink tights, black leotard, hair in a bun. I was perfect, chaste. I had hankerings then for certain clothes, just like 11-year-old girls do today, but my coveting now seems odd and historical. For example, I yearned for a floor length nightgown sewn from a particular Butterick pattern in lavender viyella. And I wanted a kilt, a real kilt.

I often passed the store on Yonge Street and stood in front of the window, pining for one of the kilts worn by the chalky mannequins. You could order a kilt from one of the many tartans on huge bolts at the back of the store—cut to your measurements. How did they make the pleats, I wondered?  The idea that I should have my own kilt became an obsession.  Did that desire pull me precisely because I did not belong to a tribe? Strangely, my family didn’t feel like my tribe; there was a sense of “every man for himself” with us.  But here I could choose my own tartan, my own clan. . . I could pretend to be Scottish.  I could belong.

My mother was agreeable. Perhaps she thought it quaint that I wanted a kilt.  It must have been very expensive to have a kilt custom made in 1969. We didn’t have much money, but my mother tried to give us what we wanted, within reason. “We’ll find the money,” she would say, and she did.  I chose a small red plaid, the MacAulay modern red, and the Scottish lady measured me up with her long yellow tape, marking numbers on a scrap of brown paper.  I waited impatiently for several weeks, imagining how the quilt would look and feel.  I had a tendency then to fetishize objects. If only I had that thing, my life would be perfect.

One Saturday morning we went to fetch it. That lady’s broad freckled hands wrapped the skirt around my neat, trim body, expertly fastened the kilt pin onto the outer apron, checked the waist, stood me back from her appraising eye, and commented in her brogue that I looked “bonnie.”  I loved the way the skirt swung around my thighs just slightly, the mechanical whirl of the crisp pleats—the big silver pin that I could put in myself—higher if I wanted some of my leg to show. There is something lovely and innocent about a slender 12-year old girl wearing a kilt, bare leg in the fall, black tights in the winter.  You might expect her to raise her arms in a highland fling.  She looks as if she belongs.

* * *

I try to imagine how it all came down to vomit on the kilt and all over the bathroom floor, my sisters both dabbing at me with warm wet cloths, quickly cleaning me up and putting me to bed so our mother wouldn’t know. Perhaps we started by pouring small amounts of wine from corked bottles in the kitchen. We might have sat around the kitchen table with coffee cups half full of too-sweet sherry. But my memory also keeps tugging at the old refrain, “come alive for a dollar five.” That was the joke we used to make later about the cheap rotgut wine “Old Niagara” that kept the rummies fueled. I remembered the old men slumped against the wall of the Silver Dollar tavern when I walked Spadina, paper bags concealing identical green glass bottles lying beside each ragdoll body.

I come up from the abyss of memory with a wry smile. It’s no wonder you can’t remember, can’t put the details together, you killed your brain cells, you pickled them with alcohol. I once asked a chemist acquaintance if he thought my memory loss was from frequent LSD trips while my mind was tender, still developing. “No, LSD is likely not the culprit. That’s the cleanest drug around—more likely it was the alcohol.”

We got tipsy, the three of us, light-dark-redhead, but it was too much sweet stuff my first time drinking. We probably laughed, acted giddy and silly as sisters do. Felt the thrill of being bad. But before the sweet sickness came over my gut, I felt the first stirrings we alcoholics get—that deep gut-warmth. That halo of euphoria that crosses us over into a land of freedom, power, luxury—the velvet couch of glory. Give it to me again and again!

So even though I scrambled up the stairs two at a time, my gut heaving, to retch in the toilet, partly missing and getting the sherry-smelling chunks of vomit on my new kilt, I was still shaken, seduced by that blood-warming pleasure. Even if I woke the next morning feeling black-wasted, tongue sour, I still wanted to go back to that land soon, to loll on that velvet couch again.

There was a problem with empty bottles, which makes me think we had somehow gotten our own booze, not purloined small amounts of our mother’s. Come alive for a dollar five . . . indeed!

* * *

The kilt smelled of my vomit after that, and so I wore it less than you would think a girl would wear a new kilt she was so excited to get. “Why don’t you wear your new kilt?” my mom would ask. “Don’t want to,” I mumbled.

But really what I wanted to say, I imagine, was that it smells vile now, the smell reminds me of my first drunk, which was horrifying because it felt wretched to get sick but it felt wonderful to get drunk. So wonderful that I am going to find a way to do it again, soon. I stuffed the kilt into a plastic bag at the back of my closet.

* * *

Latvia is a smallish Balkan country, the home of Michael P’s mother. I wanted to ask Michael about the Latvian quilt I puked over in his basement all those years ago—what were the colours, what was the fabric? Who made it? But then I remember Michael died of AIDS in 1989. Michael’s tribe is now the tribe of the dead—all those beautiful young men who died that decade and beyond. The faded quilt I wasn’t sure about, but we always joked about it, calling it the “family heirloom.” We would cuddle under it—teenage boys and girls in Michael’s basement room, our hub. We nestled together, legs sprawled over legs, arms around each other, drinking, laughing, feeling the incipient sexual thrill for one another, the thrill of being so close with hormones bubbling. One night we were all gathered there, my first time drinking tequila. Lime wedges, salt shaker, the iconic worm in the bottle. Michael lined up the shots, the shaker, the slices of lime on the edge of his candle table, a slab of wood holding dozens of candles in wine bottles. The dripping wax formed stalactite formations we loved to pick at, rolling warm wax in our hands and creating new shapes.

The candle glow lit our young pimply faces as Michael prepped the shots and passed them round. The taste was medicinal burn, but the feeling was flooding gorgeous warmth, an invitation to the couch of glory.  After several shots, I felt my gut roiling, and it all came up again on the quilt.   I suffered shame and guilt from ruining that heirloom, staining it and souring it so Michael would never use it again.  Michael is dead now. But he was Latvian, he was gay, he had two loving tribes. I like to think he basked in their tribal warmth when he was alive.

My contemporaries were not my tribe. Sure, they partied, they drank, but I started to see I approached drinking differently from them. I had to hide, elaborately, the machinations to get another drink, to keep going when everyone else had enough. I had to keep going until I was curled fetus-like, comatose, on the velvet couch.

* * *

Memory, please help me excavate the first AA meeting I attended.  Likely it was held in a church basement somewhere in Toronto. A large room with scarred tables on metal legs laid with 12-step literature on one end and a huge coffee urn and cookies at the other. A tower of Styrofoam cups and those leaf-shaped maple-creme sandwiches in plastic trays, straight from the package. A cloud of cigarette smoke striating the room. Chairs set in front of a podium. All old men but perhaps two faded washed-up ancient women with bad lipstick. This is not for me. Not my tribe. I am so different. I am young and smart.

* * *

We’d had some wine for dinner but the bottle was empty, and we lay in bed, my husband and I, talking, arguing. I was agitated—I needed more booze. This was becoming a grating need. Not so bad when I hadn’t had a drink for a few days. But when I started, the pull was tremendous, and I couldn’t fight it.  I went up to the kitchen on some excuse and poured a coffee mug half full of cooking sherry I found in the cupboard. But before I took it back down to bed, I took several big slugs. I drank more than my share of wine at dinner, and now I was increasingly slurry in my words and actions. As I got into bed, and he smelled the sherry in my cup, I could see the disgust in his face. He took the cup and flung it against our bedroom wall. I remember the drip, drip of it down the wall, and the stain it left there, even after scrubbing.  You were not of my tribe, husband, you who could nurse a Guinness for hours. You could not understand the addict’s yearning beyond reason.  But who, then, was my tribe? Not other drunks, they were old and washed up.  But not non-drunks either. Not the Scottish or the Latvians. Not the gays, not ballet girls—I had quit dance after being told I didn’t really have the body to make it as a ballerina.

* * *

I remember starting a hand quilting class in my early twenties. Quilting was another yearning—I longed to create those perfect squares and sew them all together. To make something great out of small goods. I only completed one square when alcohol—my then lover—got in the way of my relationship to quilting.  Alcohol was my primary relationship in those days; none other stood a chance.

I have been sober 30 years now, but some days I still feel like an emotional drunk careening through life.  Recently I took up my love affair with quilting. This time, with focus and forgiveness and a Pfaff Ambition sewing machine. This time, I started slow, piecing fabric, watching YouTube videos over and over. Pause and sew, play and sew. The plump woman with infinite patience on the video, sewing, showing. Laughing at herself, sewing, showing. Talking us through the techniques, the tricks.  Always a beautiful finished quilt hanging behind her. And then the women in the sewing machine store, the fabric stores, the quilting stores. Patient, full of information, encouragement, tales of experience, wry compassion for the mistakes. So I would try again, laughing at myself for cutting wrong, sewing wrong, taking out stitches, not once, but three times. Patience growing like a little bud inside me.  Oh you quilters, all you women out there—are you my tribe? Is this how I finally learn patience?

These are women I once would have scorned—too podgy, domestic, uninteresting, unintellectual. They care about fabric, for God’s sake, and quarter inch seams! I cared about building skillful arguments, refuting claims, excelling in academia. But now that stuff seems arid.

Free motion quilting got into my soul when I first tried it. After struggling for an hour to put the new foot on my machine, I took off with the freedom of it. Flying around the fabric in huge loop-de-loops, great flowers, words, lines, circles, hearts grew out of me like thread songs. My whole body moved with the shapes and the orange thread spun out, making my mark. It was like the poetry that sometimes runs through me. I am just the container now, for the great spinning quilt goddess who speaks through me.  Oh, is this my tribe, then? This is my tribe. I can’t wait to tell another quilter about it, to share that feeling of stepping off a cliff into free motion quilting.  Sometimes I worry it feels a bit too much like being drunk, that crazy whoop-de-whoo feeling. Like lolling, once again, on the velvet couch of glory. But I reassure myself: There is no hangover, no shame. Just a beautiful imperfect quilt at the end that I will give to somebody I love. Perhaps to you.

Memoir and sketches by Madeline Walker.

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Already dead

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The day Alex was killed
a beautiful Vietnamese woman,
her mouth concealed by a
paper mask, crouched at my feet
to paint blood on nails.

I felt ridiculous on the throne,
all this attention paid to
my calloused feet.
So I asked her, “what is the loveliest
place in your country?”

In the cheap notebook I keep in my purse,
I recorded her answer, Hoi An.
A few hours later, Alex was gone.

Three months ago to the day
a pedicure, a death.
Still there are curves of mock blood
on the halluces.

Every time I wake, a red wall
of fear rushes at me
I pray for our four surviving sons.

The youngest just laughs,
“Mom,” he says hugging me,
“Just live like I’m already dead.”

 

November 13, 2016 by Madeline Walker
Watercolour by Madeline Walker

 

 

Cones and Bottles

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The evening sky—hot, curdled, yellow—sat heavy on the balconies of 522 Wishart. A few people lingered in deck chairs with drinks, some with cigarettes, some with joints. Angela was one of those.  She would have to go in soon, though, because the sounds from Hell family, one floor below, were making her prickle with rage.  First, the small girl, perhaps four or five, “Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom, can I have more ice-cream? Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom,” the incessant whine. Then the presumed father—“shut the fuck up, Ape” (short for April?). Then a pitch perfect response from the mother—“stop fucking swearing at her!” and this would rise to a crescendo, with the kid finally running out onto the balcony, screaming, and the two parents inside screaming at each other.  Angela could see the little “Ape” now, a bird’s eye view, her fat ice-cream painted hands clutching the metal rails, and her pigtails quivering as she howled.

Angela wanted to phone somebody. Who? Social services? What’s the crime? Emotional abuse? Yes! That’s real. She had suffered it too. Would this April grow up to be like her, one of the walking wounded?  Probably. In the meantime, she went into her apartment and phoned the superintendent of the building for the fourth time this week. Left another voicemail. Could she get this Hell family evicted? They had been disturbing her since they moved in six weeks ago.

Ape seemed a little bit like her as a child, she surmised. The product of a fucked-up couple.  Okay, if your parents don’t even like each other, find every opportunity to criticize and wail on each other—why do they stay together? To torture their offspring?  Angela’s first memories were a fuzzy collage: She watches from a playpen in a corner of the kitchen as her parents scream at each other, their red faces just inches apart. Or another one—she is in her crib watching her father fuck her mother roughly, her mother pummels his chest, trying to buck him off her as he thrusts into her over and over, the puckered scars on his lean white buttocks flexing in ghastly rhythm.

On her father’s tenth Halloween, somebody thought it would be funny to light the string of Big Tom Thumbs hanging out of his ass pocket. Hilarious. A few skin grafts later, her Dad’s left butt cheek looked eerily like a deformed face, the rough scar pattern resembling eyes, nose, and mouth. And when, from between the crib slats, she watched her parents fuck, which was, unfortunately, too often, that butt-face looked like it was leering at her, mouthing obscenities.

Jesus, thought Angela, I have to stop this nonsense.  Going back to those memories always spelled trouble. And this little Ape was uncovering all kinds of crappy dregs from the past.

Some days had passed, and then the unthinkable happened. The couple from Hell invited Angela for dinner.  There was a knock on the door that evening—it was Friday.  Angela got up from the couch where she was parked for the evening with Nurse Jackie on the flat-screen, one joint, and a 142 gram bag of New York Cheddar chips, her end-of-the-week treat. Angela was the kind of person who precisely doled out her medicine: ten cigs a day went into the silver cigarette case, boxed wine (she alternated white and red) measured each evening, marijuana divided over the month, small bags of chips purchased by the case from Costco and stored in the linen closet.

“Hi, I’m Edie, below you, 304?” The fat thirtyish woman stood before her in all her slovenly glory.  The hair, purple dye washed out to a silver violet at the straw tips, was piled up in a thick and greasy coil on top of her head.  Her arms were thick and dimpled, popping out of her tight tank top and glistening with sweat. Edie had a dark shadow above her upper lip.  The purple hair, the incipient moustache, distracted Angie from looking into the guarded eyes.

“Hi Edie. Angela” she stuck out her hand, but then realized it was covered with the oily salt from the chips she had been munching when the knock came. She wiped her hands on the back of her jean shorts and tried again. Edie’s hand was clammy and reticent in hers.

“Hey sorry to bother you, but Hen and me wanted you to come for dinner tomorrow, if you’re free that is. Just burgers on the barbie. You might have seen—we got a little barbecue this week.
“No, I hadn’t noticed. I don’t usually look at your balcony.”

“Oh, no, I didn’t mean to say you were spying. Except somebody’s been calling the Super about the noise, and I wondered if it was you. Peace offering,” she laughed nervously, pulling at her cotton batik skirt. The elasticized waist bunched under her gut: a stripe of striated white flesh between the skirt and tight tank. A rhinestone stud protruded from the cavernous navel.  Angela felt herself contract in revulsion. Could she actually smell the rotten-cheese odour of an infected piercing, or was it her imagination?

“Oh, sorry, but the noise was driving me crazy.  No hard feelings, I hope. Sure, I can come to dinner. Can I bring anything?”

“Oh just yourself. We’ll have plenty of everything.”

“Hen – is that your husband?”

“We’re not married, but yeah, Hen is short for Hendrix. His parents named him after Jimi Hendrix. Can you believe it? Like they had a death wish for him or something.”

No rejoinder came to mind, so Angela smiled unconvincingly and started to shut the door. She was anxious to get back to the solitary pleasures of the evening, and this Edie was starting to irritate her.  “What time?” she asked just as the door eclipsed Edie’s face.

“Let’s say six?”

“See you,” said Angela to the last sliver of cheek before the door clicked shut.

Saturday at six, Angela stood in front of 304 with a six-pack of beer in one hand and a bouquet of cut-price flowers wrapped in cellophane grasped in the other. She leaned over and knocked on the door with her head, then smiled at her cleverness.

Angela heard Edie yelling from within. “Ape, get the door.”

The door opened slowly, and the little girl stood stolidly before her, holding the doorknob and a grape Mr. Freezie in the other hand, a purple stain around her lips. She wore, like her mother had yesterday, an elasticized skirt and tight tank. And like Mum, her fat bulged from between them. The only difference was that her fat was young and unblemished. No piercings around the navel, yet.

Saying not a word, Ape looked at Angela and then started sucking on the Freezie.  “What are you doing, Ape? Aren’t you inviting her in?” yelled Edie again from the kitchen.

Ape stepped back to indicate Angela should come in, but she stayed mute, making sucking noises and slamming the door loudly. That was another irritation for Angela. The slamming door from underneath her, at all hours.

She laid the beer and flowers down on a chair near the door.  “Hey,” she said, sotto voice to Ape. “Don’t slam the door, Ape. Shut it gently, like this.” She opened the door again and demonstrated a soft close for the little girl who stood as if dumbstruck, betraying not a shred of comprehension as she watched this adult talk to her quietly.

Edie came out of the kitchen with a plastic plate piled with frozen hamburger patties and hotdogs.  “I see you’ve met Ape,” she smiled. “C’mon in.” Angela picked up the beer and flowers from the chair and held them out to her hostess. “Oh great! Thank you!”

Hen came back from getting beer – now there were 24 plus the six Angie had brought. The three of them sat on the small balcony drinking beer, crowded together in plastic deck chairs, while Hen cooked the food on the little grill and Ape played in the living room with a couple of Barbies. She was eating dry Fruit Loops from a plastic container, occasionally smashing one onto Barbie’s unresponsive lips. Heaps of cereal dust decorated the grimy carpet like tiny insect mounds in pastel colours.

At one point, as she carefully negotiated her sawdust hamburger, Angela ventured a question, “So is Ape short for April?”

“Ha, no, actually. That’s a good story,” answered Edie, licking mustard off her pudgy fingers. Angela noticed she had letters inexpertly tattooed on each finger of her left hand, just above the knuckles: P-A-R-T-Y.  “Her real name’s Mariah, you know, after the singer.” And then she interjected a phrase from a Carey song. “Touch my baw-dy, put me on the fl-o-o-o-o-r,” Edie crooned in a scratchy voice, pretending her hot dog was a mic.  “But when she was little and we were trying to toilet train her, she used to shit on the floor, then start throwing it at us. I kid you not. Just like the apes going apeshit in the zoo. So we started calling her Apeshit, then Ape for short.”

Hen chimed in. “She still does it from time to time.”

“No kidding,” responded Angie, her flesh crawling.  She didn’t want to keep that image in her mind—the kid scooping soft turds from the floor and lobbing them at her parents. She imagined the damage done to the last apartment: smelly brown stains on carpets and walls.

Angela looked at the girl through the open balcony door. Now she was messing around with a hot dog, breaking it into pieces before she popped each piece between lips still stained purple from the freezie.

Angie stayed just as long as would be considered polite, then escaped back to her apartment. Later that evening when she heard some muted yelling, she took a Zoplicone to block everything out.

A few days later, Edie was at the door again.  It was Wednesday evening.  “Angela, hey I hate to do this, but I have to go do a night shift at work—they just called me in—and Hen isn’t home. He’ll be home soon though. Can you watch Ape for just half an hour, an hour at the most?”

Angela froze. Seriously? She is seriously asking me to babysit?  Angela had just poured a glass of wine and was one-third of the way into an Ian Rankin novel.

“Don’t you have a regular babysitter?”

“Yeah, but that was at the old apartment, miles away.  I need to find some teenager in the neighbourhood. But in the meantime, do me a favour?” She raised her eyebrows and shoulders in an inquiring leer. Apparently she had washed her hair and was now wearing it loose, showing bleached roots above the purple tresses.

“Okay, just this once, though,” Angie said. Oh, well, she could just read the novel one floor below. Ape was practically comatose, anyways. Edie went off to her night shift at Mac’s Convenience Store, leaving her cel number and Hen’s too.  “Help yourself to anything,” she said. “There’s beer.”

Angela sat gingerly on the couch, placing a thermos containing her ration of white wine on the scratched coffee table and her novel beside her on the cushion.  She looked at Ape, sunk into an armchair watching an episode of “My Little Pony” and slowly licking an ice-cream cone with her grey tongue.  Her bare legs stuck straight out in front of her, nicked and cut, her toenails painted hot pink. She wore only cotton underpants and a Dora the Explorer pajama top.  She hadn’t acknowledged Angela’s presence.

After the episode ended and Ape had crunched the last of the cone, she licked her fingers and announced, “Another one.”

Angela looked up from her book. “Another what?”

Ape continued staring at the screen, watching the animated figures from a cereal commercial strut, fly and, yell. “Another ice cream cone.”

“No,” said Angela in a low firm voice.

“What?” said Ape, finally looking toward this intruder.

“You heard me. No,” replied Angela once more, making eye contact with the girl.

Ape, as if bewitched, looked slack jawed at her neighbour. Rather than asking again, she hauled her small plump body out of the deep armchair and started walking to the kitchen.

Angela unfolded her legs, got up, switched off the television, and followed.

She watched the girl pull a kitchen chair up to the fridge, climb onto it, and yank the freezer door open. As Ape put her hands in to get the big five-litre tub of fudge ripple, Angela came up behind her, grabbed the little paws, pulled them away, and shut the freezer door with a slam.

“You don’t want to turn into an ice-cream cone, do you?”  she said in a censorious voice, lifting the heavy, squirming kid off the chair and onto the floor.

Ape beat at Angie’s legs, yelling “ice-cream, ice-cream, ice-cream!”

“That doesn’t work with me. You’re done with the ice-cream. You look like you’re turning into an ice-cream cone, you little fatty.” Angela grappled to control the octopus limbs thrashing out every which way.

She hadn’t counted on the tenacity of Ape, who was trying to drag the chair once more to the fridge. Angela struggled with the child, finally hauling her out of the kitchen into the living room.  She found herself in the weird position of wrestling this flailing sixty-pound body, trying to pin a strange girl onto a filthy carpet.

Finally, in a moment of revelation, Angela threw up her hands. “Jesus Mary Joseph, have your fucking ice-cream, then! You’re going to turn into a big fat fudge ripple monster cone!” Angela rapidly pulled herself off the kid, returning to her book, her wine, and the couch, while Ape, bawling, staggered into the kitchen where she negotiated the chair, the freezer door, the pail of ice-cream, the scoop, and the cone, with lots of banging. Throughout the process, she keened the anguished cry of the persecuted, a rhythmic, almost mechanical wail.

When Hen arrived about an hour later, his daughter was slowly munching to the bottom of her fourth cone, occasionally pausing for a long, shuddering breath, expelling the remnants of her crying jag. Her Dora p.j. top was streaked with melted fudge ripple, her hands sticky, her eyelids fluttering down, down.

“Wow,” he said, “Ape is in her cups tonight.  Am I supposed to pay you for babysitting?” he asked Angela, who had not moved from the couch for 60 minutes.

“No of course not. What are neighbours for?”

Pitch black deep in the night, Angela was woken by a siren, growing louder, louder, then it seemed to be shrieking right in front of the building. After a time, she fell back into the blue funnel of drugged sleep. She had doubled her Zoplicone intake since Hell family moved in.

The next morning she was in the bathroom with the hair drier going when she heard a loud rapping on the door. Through the peephole she saw Edie in her pajamas, looking distressed.

She opened the door. “What’s up?”

Edie started in a low controlled voice, filled with venom. “What did you tell my daughter last night, you warped fuck? Told her she would turn into an ice-cream cone? What kind of mean fuck are you?”  Edie pushed her mascara-streaked face into the doorway in a threatening gesture.

Angela noticed the strong smell of sweat and the fetor of decaying teeth, and she started to back away. Mute, impassive, she started to slowly push the door shut, preventing Edie from advancing.

“Did you hear the siren last night, you bitch? That was your doing.  You gave her a fucking nightmare.  She woke up grabbing her stomach and wouldn’t stop screaming so we had to call 9-1-1. She thought she was turning into an ice-cream cone, for fuck’s sake. Where do you get off telling her that shit?”  She was yelling now, and 402 had opened his door to see what was going on.

Angela closed the door on Edie’s raging face and locked it. She went back to finish styling her hair. Serves the Apeshit right. The greedy little shit.  And her moron parents. Some people!  Letting their kids run the show.

That night she took another Zoplicone. Although she had been careful in dosing her New York Cheddar chips, her pot, her wine, and her cigarettes, the sleeping medication was harder to control.  The desire to plunge into that deep blue-black hole was powerful. She dreamed. An old memory had surfaced. She was turning into a bottle of chocolate milk, just as her father had predicted.  “You drink so much of this stuff, you’re going to turn into a bottle of it,” he would tell her often, fixing her another one. Hershey’s black syrup swirling into the white. Her chosen elixir.  In the dream, Angie’s legs were transforming into cold glass, her head became a big rubber teat and inside, she felt the chilly swish of brown milk coursing through the tomb of her body. She woke with a start, mid-yell, her heart pounding.

At 7 a.m. Angie called in sick. She made a pot of strong coffee and took a cup to the balcony, where she sat in her lounge chair, wrapped in a fleece blanket, and lit her Friday night joint 12 hours early.  As she watched the trees bucking in the strong wind, she wrapped the fleece more tightly around her shoulders.  Then she cried. She cried for Mariah, for Angela, for April, for Apeshit, for Ape, for all the girls turning into cones and bottles, for all the lost little girls.

 

 

 

 

 

Dilettante blues

dilettante |ˌdiləˈtäntdiləˈtäntē| noun (pl. dilettantanti |-ˈtäntē| or dilettantantes): a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge: [ as modifier ] : a dilettante approach to science.

I have long thought of myself as having a dilettante approach to intellectual and artistic projects. In our loving household, we put a slightly kinder label on it: “Dabblers unite” is one of our mottos. Yet on my more self-critical days, I wonder why I cannot commit to a path and get really good at one thing, whether it’s fiction, sewing, poetry, drawing, painting or making comics. I come into my room on weekend mornings, loving the light pooling on blond wood floors; the palm tree outside the window; my son’s, my husband’s, and my own paintings decorating white walls. The drawing table and swivel chair in front of the window beckon, “pick me! Draw comics today!” The sewing machine and cutting table are spread with a quilt I am in the middle of making, also calling out to me: “Play with us! Free motion quilting is so fun!” And my low wicker chair, lined with plump blue pillows, looks seductive, laptop not far away. “Write! write! you know you want to, you know you want to get better at this short story thing. . . . “ The tall cupboard might be open, with its treasure trove: glue gun, watercolours, scissors, charcoal, India ink, felt-tip pens and pencils in every hue. Whose birthday is next? Shall I make a card?

Yes, I want to create, but when I never commit to one path, I never get really good any one thing. Even when I committed five years of my life to getting a PhD, I don’t think I went really deep, and I didn’t continue my research in that area. I never got to really know my subject. I used to joke that I was getting a “PhD lite” because I would rather go horizontal, exploring many tangents, than go vertical, deep into the material. I’ve always read this way too: skimming and popping in and out of several different books, writing down the title of a new one, pursuing first this lead and then that one, rarely settling down for any length of time and achieving depth. Picking books off shelves, reading a line. This and that, this and that. I’ve celebrated my dilettantism too–deciding to write about film and gender and just doing it, making the plunge. It often feels liberating to follow my variegated passions.

And yet, deep down I know that if I put on blinders and really work at something, eschewing all the persuasive pulls at my attention, a jewel may be uncovered. So, my intuition tells me not to just accept my dilettantism. To choose one path and stick to it, to put aside the other things, simply breaks my heart. However, I sense that that is the way I need to go eventually. I won’t force it, but at some point, “big magic” (Elizabeth Gilbert) will  lead me to the vertical plunge. I can feel it coming.

For now, I will enjoy dabbling.  A little moon quilt, a little cartooning, a little short story writing.  A little of this, a little of that.

 

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Have a creative week.

 

Slow rising stories

 

One autumn we went to visit my sister where she was cooking for a lodge in Cigarette Cove. Her partner ran the place and took visitors on fishing trips. We stayed for a few days, enjoying the remote location on the coast. The boys went fishing while I stayed with my sister in the warm kitchen, talking and laughing, catching up after months apart. I decided to make bread, but after all the preparation and long kneading, it didn’t rise. Disappointed, I threw the white blob atop a pile of food waste in a garbage can.

That night, we walked down the L-shaped dock to our rooms, the water lapping, the dogs running up and down among our legs, the moon laced with moving clouds. In the morning, we woke to the loons calling. When I went to make coffee in the big kitchen, the white blob had risen to a huge balloon of dough. My sister and I carefully removed it from the heap. I scraped off a few coffee grounds, punched it down, formed two loaves, let it rise again, and later that day we had the most delicious fresh bread for lunch.

My sister and I sometimes laugh about the legendary “garbage bread.” I love the slow riser, the late bloomer. The way that stories and bread and flowers surprise you when you least expect it. The way that people grow yeasty and bloomy in their late years, amazing us by finally doing what makes their hearts sing.

So I don’t need to rush the stories. Forget about the goal to have ten written by Christmas. Why?  I can let go of the expectations that academia trained in me: Always write to a deadline. Keep sending stuff out. Succumb to the pressure to publish. I don’t need to operate on that schedule. I can slow cook stories for months, if I want. Who cares?

These last few weeks I have been dipping into short stories by Raymond Carver (Where I’m Calling From) and Sharon Butala (Fever), two very different authors who do not satisfy. They leave me yearning and wondering. And yet in the wanting, there is such pleasure. They make me realize that I can let go of my need to have “closure” or  to “wrap up” my narratives. I was reminded of this as well when I saw more than one student in the Writing Centre this week asking for help in understanding Alice Munro’s “Gravel.” Wondering, feeling, not knowing—this is what stories by all three of these writers engender in me.

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From a story I am cooking now: The swimming pool came in and out of my shifting vision. White lights shimmered up through the blue water. The rest of the yard was in shadow. “Guys, c’mon,” I whispered behind me as we all scaled the concrete blocks like monkeys. Soft rock played through the open verandah door. “We’re going to get caught,” I said to the boys ascending behind me. And then suddenly I went over with a thud and red pain on the other side.

The boys leapt over to help me, saw the weird tilde of my white arm against the black grass. “Shit she broke it, I can tell by the swerve of it, look.” The other boy felt my arm near the elbow and I cried out in pain.

The soft rock clicked off and we heard clip clop steps from the pool deck. The walker was wearing heels. “What the hell is going on over here?” came a woman’s shrill voice. Soon she came flapping over to our huddle in a diaphanous gown, her perfumed head dunking into our circle of bodies. “You kids are trespassing, I should call the cops,” she cried again, trying to rouse the boys to lift their shaggy heads to look into her eyes. One of them, Pete, said, “Sorry, ma’am, but our friend has a broken arm. Can you call the ambulance, please?” Pete labored at enunciation, trying to pull up the sloppy vowels so he didn’t seem so wasted.

I was met at the hospital by my mother, who sat with me on a hard wooden bench in the hallway. “How could you be drinking? You’re under-aged. Like way under-aged! You’re 13, for god’s sake! Where the hell did you even get the booze? Who booted for you? I’ll wring their necks, the fuckers,” she spit-whispered into my ear. The crisp nurses clucked their disapproval as they passed. “No painkillers for you until the alcohol is out of your system,” said one when I groaned in agony. I was being punished. I could see it in their amused, accusing eyes.

 

 

Write what you don’t know

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“The writer is someone, who, embarking on a task, does not know what to do.” Donald Barthelme

I am reading Station Eleven by Emily St. Jean Mandel. Although I read Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, I haven’t really been curious about dystopian novels. But this book has me turning pages hungrily. One of Mandel’s themes is the persistence of the works of Shakespeare after the collapse of civilization. This got me thinking of what I know and what I don’t know and what to write about for story number eight.

What did Mandel know, I wondered, in order to write this so-readable novel? She looks blessedly young on the book’s back cover (b. 1979). Yet she writes confidently about Shakespeare, Toronto, BC’s Gulf Islands, pandemics, the life of an aging artist, multiple marriages, paramedicine, the end of civilization… and I am only on page 77. She mustn’t have “known” all this to start. Into the cauldron goes the writer’s research, experience, and imagination. Boil them together with a bit of newt’s eye and bat’s wing to produce fiction.

The old saw about “write what you know” keeps the writer in the silo of lived experience, starved for oxygen. You need all of it—research, imagination, experience, serendipity—to thrive as a fiction writer. One way to write yourself out of what you know and into what you don’t know is to use Peter Elbow’s loop writing methods described in Writing with Power. I decided to use the one where you sit down and write everything you think you know about a topic, then use that as fodder for a story. Mandel’s novel starts with a production of King Lear, so I thought why not use that play? I proceeded with interest.

What do I know about King Lear? Well not much. I studied the play in the late seventies with the late great Northrop Frye. I still have my Pelican Complete Works of Shakespeare with my fish bookplate dated 1978, the year I took my sole Shakespeare class at University of Toronto, Victoria College. Frye was an eminent scholar, yet I remember little from the class. I do recall his long pauses as we waited with baited breath, our pens raised, ready to record his wisdom. And the only thing I remember from his lectures was not even about Shakespeare—it was about music. He said that Bach’s Mass in B Minor was surely the voice of God speaking through the composer. As for King Lear, well I remember only that I loved that play the best. A few of the most famous lines stick with me, and I notice as I page through the play that almost forty years ago, my twenty-year old self carefully circled in pencil any mention of nature, natural, and unnatural. I must have written an essay on that theme.

But really, what do I know of Lear? I remember my father joking with me, the youngest of his three daughters, that I was his Cordelia. A rather odd comparison, as I think of it now, but I loved his rueful laugh when he said it. Then there was my first husband’s favourite line from the play, “Reason not the need,” from Lear’s speech in Act 2, Scene 4:

O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars

Are in the poorest thing superfluous.

Allow not nature more than nature needs,

Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady.

If only to go warm were gorgeous,

Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,

Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But, for true need—

My then-husband’s occasional invocation of that line has stayed with me these many years. When frugality became a constraint, he would implore, “reason not the need.” Let us not reduce our lives to need, to scrape by on the drab thrift store clothes, to make black bean soup again. Even beggars need a bit of splurge and splendor. Let’s treat ourselves. You only live once.

But there you go. What do I know of King Lear? A long ago reading for a Shakespeare class almost forty years ago. Frye’s wavering voice. A remembered association from my father’s mouth that cast me, in jest, as his Cordelia. A line spoken by my ex-husband that reverberates still. Reason not the need. And a bleak sadness when I think of Lear, a “poor, bare, forked animal” on the heath.

It was an interesting exercise. I really don’t know much about Lear. An embarrassingly small amount of material, in fact. But I was able to gather enough together to start. I wrote what I know, and that will lead me into what I don’t know. A few shoots that might sprout a story that is more interesting than my experience. Perhaps research will lead to a character based on Dr. Frye. Perhaps a re-reading of King Lear that may lead to something. Or another listen to Bach’s Mass in B Minor that might be fruitful. Or perhaps I can write a story with one character who always reasons the need and another who resists that dictum. Or a contemporary father who sees his daughters as modern-day versions of Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, and those joking nicknames become more real than he ever intended. So many stories waiting to be written.

img_1077I do not know what to do, exactly (see Barthelme), but I know that limiting myself to writing only what I know is the equivalent of Goneril and Reagan’s telling their father, you don’t really need all that finery, that retinue. I join Lear in saying, “reason not the need.” Let me read, research, imagine. Let me grab from a cornucopia of ideas, thoughts, books, facts, art, beauty, and experiences to make stories. Here I go into story number eight. I’ll report back later.

 

 

The work wants to be made

 

I usually write about reading and writing, but today I want to expand and talk about other stuff as well—all the sources that have been sustaining me through this horrible summer. Summer of accidents, death, sadness, and grief.

Reading. I am reading Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. I don’t remember meeting a more wonderful narrator—orphan-boy detective Lionel with Tourette’s syndrome.   His verbal and physical tics lift this detective story out of the ordinary. Lethem gives a master class in first person narration. I am less interested in the story than in the brill narration.

Writing. I finished my seventh story. My goal is still 10. I like this one, though I don’t know if any of them are any good. Sometimes ideas emerge from a deep well I didn’t know I had access too. Sometimes the process feels like automatic writing. . . “where is this coming from?” As Elizabeth Gilbert says in Big Magic, “The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through you.” I am not even thinking as I write. The words just come out.

The latest, “Cones and Bottles” is about a woman Angela with a shitty childhood encountering a girl named Apeshit who is in the midst of her own shitty childhood. Angela confronts some of her demons around addiction and control. Ice cream cones and chocolate milk bottles figure in the story. Angela’s new neighbours invite her over for a barbecue.

At one point, as she carefully negotiated her sawdust hamburger, Angela ventured a question, “So is Ape short for April?”

“Ha, no, actually. That’s a good story,” answered Edie, licking mustard off her pudgy fingers. Angela noticed she had letters inexpertly tattooed on each finger of her left hand, just above the knuckles: P-A-R-T-Y. “Her real name is Mariah, you know, after the singer.” And then she interjected a phrase of a Carey song. “Touch my baw-dy, put me on the fl-o-o-o-o-r,” Edie crooned in a scratchy voice, pretending her hot dog was a mic. “But when she was little and we were trying to toilet train her, she used to shit on the floor, then start throwing it at us. I kid you not. Just like the apes going apeshit in the zoo. So we started calling her Apeshit, then Ape for short.”

Hen chimed in. “She still does it from time to time.”

“No kidding,” responded Angie, her flesh crawling from this description. She didn’t want to keep that image in her mind – the kid scooping soft turds from the floor and lobbing them at her parents. She imagined the damage done to the last apartment: smelly brown stains on carpets and walls.

* * *

Art making. I found the wooden end of an electrical spool by the side of the road, around 22 inches in diameter. I brought it home and created “Shimmer” a mixed media piece with paper, glue, watercolour, acrylic, spraypaint, coloured pencil, straws, duct tape, wire, found objects. Shimmer has two women who spin for you (well four women, but only two can spin). One expands into dance, the other has contracted into solitude. Jewels sparkle here and there from found objects. There is a little glittery holder for my own version of angel cards at the bottom. This may not be finished.

Spin the girl, pick a card. Shimmer away/ Contract/ Expand/ Change/Everything changes all the time/ pick a card any card/ you never know what life holds for you.

Sewing: Working on “full moon rising quilt.” I love the batiks. I am learning to sew curves, sometimes tricky. This quilt is for a friend that I love.

Painting and writing, sewing and drawing, reading and thinking, dreaming and loving, crying and hugging. These all sustain me during the summer of pain.

P.S. would you like me to pick a card for you? Reply below. I’ll pick it and tell you what it says. IMG_1052

 

Learning the craft: first person first

I have been enjoying Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life. The first essay is Richard Russo’s defence of omniscience, and he is very persuasive in showing writers the advantages of omniscience with examples from John Steinbeck and Jon Hassler (and others).

Okay, I am convinced. Problem is, it takes time, doesn’t it? To build to omniscience?

I have completed six stories now, and two out of six are third person. One of the third person narrations is close (we go into the thoughts of one of the characters), and the other, I suppose is “omniscient.” But that one felt very weird to write.  First person narration comes naturally, like a river flowing through me.  Third person omniscient feels distant from me, like I have stepped out of myself.  The disembodiment perhaps brings new powers over time.

I would like to write more in the third person, but I want to see if I can keep the energy of the first person and translate it into third person narration.  This feels like a process that cannot be rushed.

After my book of poems was published, I felt squeamish about it–that I was too confessional, too much of me was exposed.  And yet there is energy there, albeit awkward energy. There is soul. In writing fiction, I need to transmute that richness of my voice, my experience, into the more subtle delineations of the third person narrator.

I started a new full-time job on July 18 after four months “between jobs.” I realize the job takes a lot out of me, though I love it, and I am so grateful for employment that fits my skills and my interests.  I remain committed to my story writing, to learning the craft, to carving out some time each morning. I arranged a 9:30 start so I can fit in my writing time. IMG_0435The blog, however, will be more erratic.

In closing, I offer two paragraphs from my stories, one from a first person narration, the other from my most “omniscient” narrator:

I sat in the kitchen nook, feeling quite proprietorial by now. I liked this corner. It felt safe. The kitchen table was strewn with used coffee cups, a colouring book and crayons, a stack of library books in one corner. The other adults had things in hand—there was nothing to do. My son was taken care of. I liked the coffee made from beans from a local roastery. It was strong with real cream. I liked the big panel of windows behind me. I could turn my head and see the narrow yard with a rusty play gym and the compost pile, home to happy rats. I could see the sagging homemade cake perched atop the fridge, the goody bags lined up on the top shelf in the Ikea-styled kitchen. The sun had come out and I felt the warmth on my neck and a pleasant breeze from the open window beside me. The kids’ voices seemed as if they were coming from a distant country in another language. I liked the feel of the smooth cushion under my bare thighs.

Rinaldo unbuttoned the top two buttons of his madras shirt, lifted her small hand, and leaning over the bed, placed it on his bare chest, atop the layer of curly, sweaty hair. “Here, Mum, right here.” Ainslie’s thin arm was fully extended, the hand had disappeared into her son’s open shirt. His large hand covered hers, pinning it to his heart, the chest hair protruding from around the hand sandwich. He leaned over her, his other arm steadying his big leaning body so he wouldn’t fall into the bed. On this hot July day, he was wearing cargo shorts and his trunk-like thighs, also covered with thick dark hair, were pressed up against the wooden rail at the side of the bed. Ainslie opened her eyes, surprised but not alarmed by this new position she was in. Mother and son did not speak, but the room was not silent. The sound of Rinaldo’s heart seemed to fill the space, BA-doom, BA-doom, BA-doom. Ainslie felt the reverberations through her body.

 

Work mentioned

Baxter, Charles and Peter Turchi, Eds. Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2004.