Here’s an excerpt from a forthcoming novel by my friend David Homel who, not coincidentally, is going to be the visiting translator at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing winter residency (January, 2011). Go to his reading, walk up and say hello, give him the secret Numéro Cinq handshake, whisper the Words of Power. David is a novelist, translator, and screenwriter. He has won the Governor-General’s Award for Translation, not once but twice. His novel The Speaking Cure won the Hugh McLennan Prize. Last year David and his wife, children’s book author Marie-Louise Gay, co-authored a picture book entitled Travels with my Family.
The Midway is due to be published by Cormorant Books in Toronto in September.
Excerpted from Midway
Author’s note: In this excerpt, the novel’s hero Ben Allan confronts the heart of the male mid-life crisis which manifests itself to him as the fear of death and a desire to destroy everything his life is built on. The real problem, Ben is discovering, is with death itself: it refuses to let itself be known, even after it has visited. Ben has two allies in his attempt to work out a new way of living with his wife. Unlikely allies, it’s true: a couple of plastic dinosaurs. They prove to be pretty good therapists.
“I’m afraid I’m turning into a cliché,” the stegosaurus lamented to the tyrannosaurus. “You know, the one with the discontent middle-age male. The mid-life crisis from which there is no escape. The red convertible and the blond girl with the wind in her hair.”
“Sounds delicious. But don’t worry about being a cliché: there are no new emotions,” the tyrannosaurus answered in his pontificating manner. “The genius is in how you experience them.”
“And I am experiencing them,” the stegosaurus said ruefully. “Human, all too human.”
“Are you complaining by any chance?” the tyrannosaurus asked. “Night after domestic night, isn’t that what you wanted? What you pined for, like in one of those sentimental ballads you liked to listen to when you were a teenager and that formed – deformed is more like it – your emotional universe to this very day? And now that you have a few of those wild, inconvenient emotions you once craved, you hesitate. You retreat. You are becoming human. Careful what you pray for – you just might get it.”
“I was hoping for more empathy from you,” the stegosaurus said. But even in the lower forms of vertebrate life, among the prehistoric, the extinct, empathy was hard to come by.
The tyrannosaurus snorted. “You know my nature. It’s a world I never made.”
Typical, the steg thought to himself, for his brother reptile to quote James T. Farrell, the pugnacious pride of Chicago, that tough-guy writer whom he personally considered one-dimensional. But he kept that thought to himself. He had been drinking, albeit modestly, but he didn’t trust his own thoughts after two glasses of wine. Unlike the tyranno, he was an inexperienced drinker. The stuff went to his head, and sometimes he couldn’t tell which thoughts were his, and which belonged to the wine. The effect wasn’t very pleasant.
Both dinosaurs had been drinking, though they were still within the domain of “moderate.” You couldn’t call them “social” drinkers, since their society had long since disappeared. They were just a couple of lonely guys, up late at night, egging each other on, a meditation for two, spoken out loud. They were lonesome monsters, and they knew it.
The steg was a worn green color, like the copper roof of some university pavilion in an Ivy League school. He carried his characteristic bony plates of defense on his back as if they were a burden, which they had become, now that his place in the world was assured. The tyrannosaurus had no other defense than his famous teeth and nails, powered by an aggressiveness that even scared him if he bothered to consider it. He was earth-brown, but his drab color made absolutely no difference to him. They were both banged up from a lifetime of play: the stegosaurus was missing a horn, and his companion had his tail twisted up at a jaunty angle that seemed out of character for this most fearsome of predators.
Poor hard-rubber reptiles! They never had to endure such odd role-playing back when they were Tony Allan’s playthings. Back then, years ago, they could roar and wrestle, attack and defend, and do all the things toys are meant to do, like teaching a young boy like Tony how to negotiate the give and take of society. He had gotten the two animals as presents from his parents during the great days of the latest dinosaur craze, after Jurassic Park, when Hollywood had given the monsters the very human longing to be unfettered and free. As a boy, Tony was sure that dinosaurs belonged to his world alone, and he was amazed to see how easily his father played with them.
“They never go out of style,” Ben told him at the time. “I had the exact same models when I was a kid. I think they even came in the same colors.”
Tony was confused. His father talked about models and colors, but for him, the dinosaurs were the precious companions of an only child.
Of course, he tired of them with age. One day Ben found them in the garbage can in the boy’s room. He rescued them, put them in a plastic bag and hid them in a secret spot at the back of the linen closet, on the top shelf, a place no one under six feet could reach without a step ladder. And the step ladder was in the basement, buried under a puzzling array of domestic junk.
The toys belonged to Tony. They were his, and he had the right to dispose of them as he wished, once he had outgrown them. But Ben intervened, and fished them out of the garbage, which was not a thing he wanted anyone in the family to know. He was afraid of his wife’s accusation, and she would have been right: here he was, confining Tony to childhood. And so, he invented the special hiding place.
Now, years later, he was pressing them into some late-night role-playing. The steg and the tyranno strolled along the kitchen counter, two cronies making awkward, lumpy progress, trying to learn new skills they’d never needed before, in the earlier, more instinctive days of their careers. The tyrannosaurus turned out to have a Dionysian character. He was a less self-doubting version of Willis Barnstable, and he urged his companion to experience life to the fullest, and live at the level of his pretensions. The steg was a gloomier sort, self-absorbed, who could not imagine pleasure without complications. For whom the weight of complications was probably a pleasure in itself. At first, Ben saw himself in the stegosaurus. Then he realized he was both monsters.
Their theater was the white Arborite kitchen counter lit by a violent pool of halogen light. Click-click went their claws, scratching out their awkward routine, like two fat ladies learning to tap-dance. Being cold-blooded reptiles, they appreciated the heat that the halogen lamps gave off. But they didn’t much care for that impression of third-degree that a spotlight creates. After all, they had their secrets too.
Afraid of falling over the edge of the counter and a little tipsy, the stegosaurus came to an abrupt halt, causing the tyrannosaurus to stumble. The steg didn’t excuse himself, which was out of character. His mind was on the confession he was preparing.
“I don’t even know her – that’s the thing,” he began. “I think I’m obsessed.”
“If you think you’re obsessed, then you’re probably not.”
The steg ignored his friend’s sarcasm. “If I don’t know her, then the possibility of knowing her must have me interested… But what does ‘knowing’ mean? Half the time I think I don’t even know my own wife. I mean, do I really know what she’s thinking?”
“Jesus, you’re getting ridiculous,” the tyranno told him. If he’d been anatomically equipped, he would have slapped his forehead with his palm. “If you did know, would you be any further along?”
“You’re right,” the steg conceded. “I should harden myself, like you.”
Then he launched into a further confession that had the tyranno half-appalled and half-contemptful. What he liked most about knowing Carla McWatts, he admitted, was the time he spent in her apartment without her. He loved sitting and listening to the random sounds of her building; he enjoyed the hush of complete meditation that he didn’t have in any other part of his life. Yes, he had tried out her bed, he let on, but without her, he added, anticipating his companion’s question. In the end, he preferred to sit in the middle room in the caved-in armchair covered in swaths of Indian print bedspreads and listen to the kitchen faucet drip.
“I’m sure she’d love to hear that,” the tyrannosaurus smirked. “Well, whatever gets you off. But am I missing something? Is the faucet some kind of Freudian symbol?”
The stegosaurus would not be deterred by his friend’s high-school humor.
“What I like,” he said, “is that I don’t have to fix that faucet. It’s not mine to worry about. I’m not responsible for it. If that’s Freudian symbolism, so be it. It can drip all it wants. And she doesn’t care about fixing it either, that’s obvious. It’s just an apartment. Next year she’ll move into another one. The sound the water makes is just sound. Pure music, signifying nothing.”
“I bet that makes her feel very special,” the tyranno put in. “Have you told her so?”
The stego said nothing. He wanted to protect his secret contemplative pleasure that he knew was wrong. Not wrong for him; wrong for her. And wrong for the outside world. His friend gave him a sidelong glance. Engaging in confidences was out of character for the steg. Those bony plates along his spine were no accident. He’d grown them because he wanted to, because he thought he needed them. They’d long since become part of his personality that normally did not include late-night admissions about the music of leaky water faucets.
The tyrannosaurus didn’t read much. The pursuit of pleasure took up all his time. But once he had leafed through a magazine for a few minutes before falling head-first into sleep, one of those popular lifestyle rags. He came across an article that still clung to his memory. Its author claimed that marriage was good for your health, more specifically a man’s health. Married men were happier and healthier than unmarried men, and that was a fact.
Maybe that’s not true after all, the tyranno mused. At least not if you’re a stegosaurus.
Ben Allan parked the dinosaurs just beyond the circle of halogen light and opened a second plastic bag. It held the stuffed animals. Soft and fluffy, huggable and loveable, they made quite the contrast with the reptile figurines. Ben took out his favorite: a small brown lion. He had bought him for Tony at the giant Samaritaine department store in Paris, once when he had been there for a research project, at the beginning of his career, when the thought of getting ahead still interested him. Ben remembered the salesgirl who’d sold him the lion. He handed the toy to her, as embarrassed as if he had been buying silk panties, but she put him at ease. Her lips were crimson, her hair aubergine, all that showy sexuality just to sell stuffed animals in a department store. She gave the lion a quick kiss on the forehead that filled Ben with a thrilling jealousy. “Un petit lion, mais c’est tellement sympathique,” she said, as if Ben were doing the noblest thing in the world by buying a stuffed animal on a business trip.
Standing at the kitchen counter, remembering those days when Tony was a young son and he a young father, Ben began to cry into the lion’s small, impassive, tawny chest.
Then a most unusual thing occurred. The dinosaurs were moved by Ben’s situation. Here was a grown man crying into the dusty synthetic fur of an abandoned stuffed animal, after midnight, as if he’d been doing the drinking, and not them. They set aside their differences in personality to make common cause: to save the one who had saved them. They stepped back into the arena of halogen light, pushing the lion out of the way. He was no more than a passive, receptive surface, no good at a time of crisis like this. The tyrannosaurus spoke first.
“How come we never get to meet your wife?” he demanded of Ben. “Here we are, living under the same roof, and she doesn’t even know we exist. She never plays with us. Why keep us hidden all the time?”
The stegosaurus intervened, less judgmental, more conciliatory.
“You should get Laura to play with us, you know. Maybe it would be good for your marriage. Picture it – you and her down on your hands and knees on the living room rug. Imagine the things you could say! Sure, we’re extinct, don’t think we don’t know that. But we can still do plenty of good. Anyway, you’re going to be extinct too if this keeps up.”
“I hate to say it, but the stego’s right,” the tyrannosaurus added. “I bet we could do you some real, concrete good. We’re toys, right? Toys speak for people. That’s why we were invented. Okay, we teach, we socialize, we do all that, but what we like most of all is to speak. So there you are, you and Laura, each of you with one of us in your hand. We could speak for you.”
The tyranno folded his arms over his predator’s chest, very proud of his newfound sensitivity.
“That’s called role-playing,” the steg told Ben.
“Role-playing?” his friend scoffed. “That’s just plain playing.”
Ben flipped off the kitchen light. The dinosaurs, with all their good counsel, faded into the darkness. Okay, maybe they were on to something, but he wasn’t ready yet to accept direction from a pair of plastic playthings from the past. He tried to picture Laura on her hands and knees, on the rug, with a stegosaurus clutched in her delicate hand. Proper, level-headed Laura, surrendering to that kind of therapy… It was hard to imagine.
Though he did need help. He understood that much. Here he was, late at night, surrounded by damning evidence on all sides. In his right hand: a fluffy lion with an irresistibly friendly face and a little tag attached to his tail: designed in Italy, manufactured in Indonesia. On the kitchen counter: two dinosaurs, a pair of amateur therapists. In the trunk of his car: a painting wrapped in a green garbage bag like a corpse in a Mafia flick.
He went upstairs, lion in tow. Half-way up, he kissed it where the pretty eggplant-haired Parisian woman had. Her kiss had long since faded. The lion’s forehead tasted of dust, like the top shelf of the linen closet where the childhood things were hidden.
Why were they coming back now?
Just before dawn, Ben Allan awoke from a dream. At first he was terrified, then absolutely elated. His elation had to do with the story of the dream.
It was a dream about sexual abuse. It came to Ben in a gratifying flash that perhaps he was like so many others with stories to tell: he too had been abused, he too was a victim. What comfort that would
be! At long last, he would be part of something larger than himself: the ever-growing army of the damaged and the victimized.
In his dream, he was a small boy in his parents’ house with his two older brothers. For once, his brothers had put aside their bitter competition and banded together to attack him. His parents were present, but only to watch the assault. They did not protect him; worse, they presided over it. Ben felt the familiar weight of his brothers’ bodies on his, often they rough-housed this way, but this time they were not playful in their punishment. Their weight was hard and sexual, he thought of the word fuck that he had often heard but didn’t understand, except that it meant some kind of harm. Then a male voice spoke: it would have had to be his father’s.
Don’t forget to press in the press box.
Ben awoke with that strange command in his ears.
His heart was pounding and his mouth was dry. And his head was buzzing with a sense of discovery.
Press box? he wondered.
Box, meaning the female sex in that old demeaning slang from high school? But I’m a boy, how could I have a box? Unless I was a girl. A girl in the dream, because someone wanted something from my body and was willing to use force to get it.
Or press box, where the radio broadcasts of the Cubs’ ball games came from, the soundtrack to my childhood?
Which was it, sexual assault or broadcasting?
Ben got out of bed to take a piss. This dream, he wondered, was it the key to the unhappy childhood his father boasted he’d given him, as if it were some kind of trust fund that might be made to produce in the future, in adult life? He went back to bed and there was the stuffed lion, looking up at him from next to his pillow in the early dawn light. His eternally friendly look was a little puzzled, as if he did not understand what he was doing there.
Ben went to the window on Laura’s side of the bed. The leaves of the maples that bordered the yard and the back alley were still rolled tight in their early spring defensive position. Behind them, the sky, tinted orange from the streetlights, was beginning to whiten in the east. Another working day.
I could live here a thousand years, Ben thought, and this place still wouldn’t belong to me.
In the dim bedroom with its lovely perfume of female sleep, Ben performed his father’s exercise. He moved from the window to the corner of the room and looked up at that point where the walls met the ceiling. A companion for every day. We say the dead keep watch over us, and so deny death. Now, Mother, it is your time to speak. Did it really happen? Were you there, and did you do nothing to stop it? Did you decide to take the afternoon off from parenting to go play softball? Or was it really just a dream?
There was no answer. No companionable spirit was watching over Ben. Death worked for his father, but it would not work for him.
Maybe because he had nothing to offer it. His father served death, but he could not. It remained utterly strange to him, even after it had touched him through his mother, and through the merchants of mourning who were building a growth industry for baby-boomers like himself. After his mother died, Kate Barnstable, who should have known better, presented him with a book that contained a twelve-step program that taught the bereaved how to succeed the perfect mourning experience. At the back of the book he found a coupon offering a fast-acting, five-step program for people who just wanted to get it over with. No matter how many steps there were, everyone agreed: the object of mourning was to move on.
But what if that wasn’t true, Ben wondered as dawn began to color the sky pink. What if mourning is something you inhabit forever, every day, and that you never get over?
The little he knew about mourning came from the movies. He had seen models of how to do it on the big screen, and the props it used. The stone monument, mute and dignified, as solid and cold as granite, the lightly falling drizzle patting the leaves, the well-cut black clothes the actors wore, the Hollywood music swelling up to comfort the characters and audience alike.
There was only one problem. Ben Allan had enjoyed none of those props when his mother died. The Allan family suffered from a grave dysfunction when it came to celebrating grand occasions. Even the once-in-a-lifetime occasion of death. The Allans never commemorated anything.
Less than twenty-four hours after her death, Jeannette Allan had been turned into ash. Ben learned this from his father over the phone. Those were her final wishes. No one could argue with the sacred character of the last will.
“What happened to the ashes?” Ben asked.
“I don’t know,” his father told him.
“Come on, make an effort.”
Ben regretted his words. Remember, the poor man’s in mourning, he scolded himself.
But his father was far too satisfied with himself to be offended.
“They offered them to me, but I said no. Boy, did that get their goat! They told me they’d put them aside for me until I was over my grief and could think straight. I told them I was thinking straight already. I told them not to bother, my mind was made up.”
At the time, Ben did not push for more details. With parents like his, you could never find out anything. It was hard enough getting his mother even to accept him coming to visit her. She and his father were two of a kind: great resistors to any kind of help. She replied with laconic immigrant reasoning to his offers to keep her company and give his father time off. What good will it do? It’s not your fault I got sick. If you must. If you’ve got nothing better to do… The kind of reply some families would have considered insulting.
He did make it down to Chicago once or twice during the period of her unsuccessful accommodation with cancer. And of course his timing was off: he missed her final moments. When he told his father how much he regretted that, he comforted Ben in his usual way. “You couldn’t have done anything anyway,” Morris assured him.
Little by little, Ben let the subject of her remains go from his mind. But his father brought it up again several months later, during one of their long-distance negotiations about whether he was going to come and live in Montreal, and how.
“Would you believe it? A bill showed up for storage costs!”
“Storage,” Ben repeated. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about. Storage for what?”
“The ashes. Imagine that! I told them to stuff it.”
“Whom, son. The cremation people. They were absolutely pleading with me to take them. They tried to make me feel like a monster. You know, unnatural, inhuman. Finally they got it through their heads and left me alone. They haven’t bothered me since. And I never paid their bill either.”
Morris Allan, that great warrior against convention no matter how steep the price, and who had to pay, triumphed once again. He had delivered a swift kick in the pants to polite society.
“You could have asked me first,” Ben complained.
“Asked you what?”
His father had him cornered, and he knew it.
“Asked you if you wanted your mother’s ashes?” Morris railed. “You never showed any interest in that kind of thing. What would you have done with them? Put them in a Grecian urn on your mantelpiece? You don’t even have a mantelpiece, no one even knows what a mantelpiece is any more. And even if you had one, do you think your wife would be happy to have a tin can full of… forget it. But don’t worry, they told me they’d dispose of her remains with dignity.”
A car rumbled past on the street outside. Incongruous at dawn, the bass from the car’s monster sound system made the bedroom windows rattle in their dry putty footings. It was Eminem, still cleaning out his closet at this ungodly hour. There must have been a lot of stuff in it.
Ben felt outside his mother’s death. That was the problem. At the same time he didn’t even know what those words meant: I feel outside it. Because there was no headstone and gentle drizzle falling upon autumn leaves? Because his mother’s death didn’t end like a Hollywood movie – as if the rest of her life had been one? Ben didn’t know how to mourn. That was the real problem. He didn’t even know what mourning meant. Even after it had visited, death refused to let itself be known.
Maybe death itself was the problem. There was something wrong with death. Maybe the book would explain that to him, the one with the twelve-step program for people who didn’t know how to mourn. Who were on the outside of death. Who couldn’t comprehend loss. A special program for people without granite monuments.
Ben lay down next to his wife. The sheet on his side of the bed was twisted and wrinkled with the effort of his bad dream. If I was abused, he reasoned, wouldn’t I know it? Wouldn’t there be some part of my body that would tell me, even in a secret way, an ache or a cramp, a dysfunction, something more concrete than one nightmare with a pun in it?
He turned to Laura and held her, and breathed in the faint smell of cigarette smoke in her hair. He did not smoke, he was against smoking, but he loved that smell in her hair, a little stale and very sexy. Smoking was the only moral failing that Laura kept from the days of liberation when they’d met, and he treasured it as a link to their wilder past.
With one hand, he lifted her hair from the nape of her neck where the best perfumes lingered. With the other, he opened the imaginary book that contained the twelve-step plan he did not possess. He began to read. Mourning is not the pain of loss. Mourning is the pain of love.
That did not bode well. If you don’t know how to mourn, does that mean you don’t know how to love either?
PUBLISHER: CORMORANT BOOKS, TORONTO, CANADA
NOVEL TO BE PUBLISHED IN SEPTEMBER 2010