Here is a story by my friend Michael Bryson from his 2010 collection How Many Girlfriends. For several years Michael published a terrific online magazine in Toronto called The Danforth Review, which is sadly defunct although the pages now reside in the Library and Archives Canada and can still be accessed there. This was before online magazines had much legitimacy; Michael was ahead of his time, and his magazine was a useful lens on what was new and coming in the Canadian literary world while it lasted. He also writes. I put one of his stories in Best Canadian Stories (2005). And he publishes a blog called Underground Book Club.
When I was sixteen, a man spoke to my parents. A week later, he bought me a new set of clothes and I flew with him to California. His name (and I’m not making this up) was Sly. Maybe my story starts with the arrival of Sly. My parents will tell you straight out he’s an evil bastard, which is true enough, but Sly’s character was nothing if not Byzantine. He looked a bit like Santa Claus, an fact he exploited with the young and the old. It took me a long time to see the bits of him that I can claim to know, because for a long time I couldn’t see over his wake. I would look at him and see just the crest of his wave. He was my substitute father, my mentor, my guide in the world of glitter he had brought me to, and I was his servant. I was his paycheque, too, but it took me a long time to figure that out. I’m trying hard not to cloud my judgement about Sly here. I’m trying to tell you things that are simple and real. I would like to say things about Sly that even Sly would agree with, if he were here to agree with them, which he isn’t, since he’s dead.
It was a dark and stormy night in New Hampshire (I’m not making this up). I was in L.A. with Lily (more on her later). Sly was in New Hampshire. I was trying desperately to get him on the phone. In recent days, we had argued. I had been in a professional slump. At the time, I blamed Sly. “Patience,” he counseled. In my condo on the outskirts of the city, Lily laid out the last of our drugs. It was approaching nightfall. Lily was still wearing her bathrobe. Beneath her robe she wore only her bikini bra. She was seventeen. I was twenty-one.
“Sly, you fucker!” I screamed into the phone. I kept getting his answering machine. He had gone to New Hampshire to meet a new client. A potential new client, anyway. I was afraid that I would lose his attention. Before he had left for the East Coast, he had been reassuring.
“I have a script on my desk right now. It’s perfect for you. The producers want you. It’s a role that could really make you.”
“Well, shit! Send it over!”
“When I get back,” he promised.
The circus was his favorite metaphor. “Life’s the Big Top, kid,” he would say. “Don’t ever forget that.”
After he died, I kept hearing his voice over and over. “Life’s the Big Top, kid. The Big Top, kid. Don’t ever forget that.”
Let me tell you one thing clear and true: I haven’t forgotten that. Life is a carnival. The carnival is the centre and source of all life. Sly taught me that, and now I’m telling it to you.
The police found Sly the next day, his body slumped over his steering wheel, his rental car on a side road two miles from the country mansion where he had gone to meet his prospective client. His blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit in that state. But what had stopped him cold was the bullet that had entered him through the back of the head. Within hours, my phone started ringing. Enemies? Did Sly have enemies? Is there anyone out there who would want Sly dead? By now, you’ve formed your own opinion. You’ve been paying attention. You’ve learned a thing or two. You’ve already guessed that Sly is the type of man who had enemies. So let me confirm your intuition: On any given day, depending which way the money was flowing, Sly received death threats, bribes, notices of blackmail. In high school, Sly had been a football player, and he had never lost his sense of strategy or his desire to move the ball down the field. What I’m trying to say is, Sly had enemies, he ignored his enemies. They were part of the business, part of the landscape. Discounting them was part of his job.
Sly went to New Hampshire to meet the daughter of a banker. The banker’s brother was a movie producer in Hong Kong. Sly owed the movie producer a favour. The banker wanted Sly to take on his daughter as a client. The thing was, Sly thought the girl had potential, but he wanted to be released from his obligation to the movie producer, and it was clear to him that the movie producer didn’t want to release him. There are favours and then there are favours. I don’t know all of the details, but Sly told me he wanted the girl and he was taking his time. He would only go into a deal if it was the one he wanted. Negotiations over the girl had gone on for three years. Sly showed me her portfolio. I could tell you who she is, but that isn’t important to us here. Let’s just say that Sly’s intuition wasn’t wrong. She has become a famous person. She outshines us all.
He asked me, “Isn’t she something?”
I flipped through the photographs. “Mmm.”
(The truth? She was stunning. She was fifteen and had a beauty that could freeze your heart.)
When he showed me her portfolio – the day before he left for the East Coast – he was nearly bursting out of his skin. I had never seen him more excited. I had never seen him more transparent, more ambitious. He lay a photograph of her on the coffee table and said, “Look at her. Just look at her.” Sly’s gears spun on the outside of his head.
“Look at her,” Sly said, but I looked at him instead.
It took my parents six weeks to realize they never should have let Sly take me to California, but as far as I was concerned I had been told to go and I had gone. The only progress is forward. My father was fond of military metaphors. There is no room for retreat.
My first Christmas away from home I flew with Sly to Argentina. He had to meet some business partners in Buenos Aires. Sign some papers. Shake some hands. A real-estate deal, plus part ownership in a string of fast-food restaurants. Sly was showing me a new life, initiating me into my new world.
My father can remember when the first television came into his village. I say “village,” as if he lived in a mud hut, but he lived in a small town on Lake Ontario surrounded by farms. It’s still there, and it looks much like it did when my father packed up his bags and left. His father ran the local garage. His father would have remembered the arrival of the first car in that part of the world. When you grow older, you travel in two directions at once. Call them forward and backward. Call them up and down. Call them whatever you want, but they are dimensions without words. Evidence of the former is measured on the body. Evidence of the latter is hidden in the mind. My father’s village is alive in my memories. It is alive with my childhood. I inhabit it, and it inhabits me.
When I left home, I escaped my parents, a rocket blasting towards Mars. The week after I left, my mother started calling me in the middle of the night. She would call in tears, asking me to be careful. I would lie in bed with my eyes closed, the phone tight against my ear.
Sly told me her reaction was common.
“Parents think their children are growing up too fast,” he said. “But in actual fact, it’s the parents who are afraid of change.”
I stopped answering my phone. I changed my phone number. I told my parents to call me at Sly’s office.
“You told me to go with him,” I told my mother.
She sobbed on the other end of the line.
“I know, I know.”
Sly arranged for me to see a therapist. Her name was Judy. Judy had short hair and wore pink see-through dresses. I started seeing her three times a week. Before every visit, I disappeared into the public washroom across the hall from her office and masturbated with the fury of the damned.
There are many possible beginnings. That’s where we started. I’m trying to get us past that. I’m trying to move on. I’ve got many things left I’d like to say. I thought only good things about Sly for a long time, then – slowly, how slowly! – my mind began to sour towards him.
Judy thought I was dominated by my mother. Not my mother per se, but the archetypal Mother. The Great Feminine. At first, I didn’t understand what she was talking about. Half of the time when I went to see her she wasn’t wearing a bra, and I sat slumped in the soft leather of her couch, three-quarters bleary-eyed, my penis sore from my frenetic whacking-off earlier, aching for her to touch me.
“All human beings are connected by the collective unconscious,” she said, over and over. “The collective unconscious is the total of all of the memories of all of our ancestors from the beginning of time. The collective unconscious is in all of us. It is the foundation of our identities. It is the source of the images and symbols we use to provide meaning for our lives. Just as in the world of our conscious lives, our unconscious lives are divided into two spheres of influence: the masculine and the feminine. In the unconscious, the masculine and the feminine are integrated; they support each other. They are also each divided into various subcategories, but we don’t need to go into that right now. Right now, all I’m trying to get you to understand is that what happens in your unconscious life influences what happens in your conscious life. If either the masculine or the feminine is trying to dominate the other, then you will feel out of balance, and you will act out that imbalance by engaging in various dysfunctional behaviors.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said, over and over.
What kind of dysfunctional behaviors? (No, the masturbation doesn’t count.) Some you know already; some you can guess; some I’m not going to tell you. Intoxicants, yes. Narcotics, yes. Nicotine, on occasion. But these weren’t the addictions that most concerned Judy.
“You don’t know how to separate,” she said to me eventually.
“Not separate what, separate how. You don’t know how to separate.”
“You haven’t learned how to be an individual.”
Holy fucking shit! I thought. I don’t know how to be an individual!
It took me a month after that session to go back to her. I cancelled eight meetings in a row. I started masturbating six times a day. I thought, Jesus, if I don’t have sex with her I’m going to die. I thought Judy was trying to do a good thing, but I wasn’t ready to be analyzed. Then I turned seventeen. Then I met Lily. Then I stopped seeing Judy.
More on Lily right now.
When I met her, Lily was fourteen and a recovering alcoholic. Sly referred to her as “that waif” or “your waif.” When I met her, Lily weighed less than one-hundred pounds and smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. Sly tried to get her jobs, but she refused to audition. Her parents were in the business. She didn’t want any part of it. Since she was eleven, she had been running drugs for one of her father’s associates. She had her own source of income, is what I’m saying. Her father was a props manager and a failed screenwriter. Her mother was an extra who had once had an affair with Richard Burton, or Steve McQueen, or Dustin Hoffman. Lily had heard three different versions of the affair story, and she didn’t believe any of them. For a good part of Lily’s childhood, her mother had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals, detoxing or recovering from depression, psychosis, and at least one failed suicide attempt.
Lily started drinking at a Christmas party hosted by her uncle, a Vietnam veteran who had lost his right arm in the Tet Offensive. Left for dead in the jungle, his arm shattered by shrapnel, his unit scattered, he had survived for a week on bugs, bark, and prayer, only to be picked up by a stray chopper on its way back from a failed combat mission. Lily’s uncle had started praying one week earlier after a late-night reefer-influenced conversation with a Southern Baptist officer then on his third tour of duty.
I met her uncle later at the state penitentiary in Arizona. He told me he had seen God in the jungle. God had told him he would be rescued and sent on a mission. God had appeared to him as a flash of light. When God spoke, the world around him roared like a giant flame. “Anything, Lord. Anything you ask, I will do it,” Lily’s uncle promised. He didn’t know what the mission was. He returned to the U.S. and spent some time in an army hospital, where he cried himself to sleep at night. He asked the hospital’s chaplain to send him on a mission, but the chaplain refused. “The time will come when you are needed,” the chaplain promised. “Be ready, be patient, be humble, and the time will come.” A month later, a former army buddy with connections to the Black Panthers convinced Lily’s uncle to help with the shipment and delivery of some “fine, fine hashish” across twelve states. After the sixth dropoff, the friend left to deal with urgent business back on the coast, and the next day Lily’s uncle met the federal agents on the open highway at sunrise all alone.
He was out on bail pending the appeal of his conviction when he hosted the Christmas party that started Lily’s boozing. When I met her, Lily was trying to make sense of the twelve steps, trying to find a reason, she said, to go on living. Her uncle was executing his mission, taking a prison correspondence degree in New Testament theology and spiritual counseling. In his spare time, he helped the prison chaplain detox hardened felons. On her march through the twelve steps, Lily had forgiven him. She thought of him like a Brazilian tree sloth, caught in an earlier stage of evolution. “God, God, God, fuck,” she said. “It’s all he talks about.” She had forgiven him at the prison, which was where I got my brief chance to see him. It might have been the next day, or the day after that, but I woke up and realized that I didn’t believe in much of anything. I believed Sly when he said my day would come. I spent enormous amounts of time locked in my condo with Lily. One day, we had sex twelve times. We had sex in every room in the house three times over.
Sly thought the girl had great potential.
“No, Sly,” I said. “You’re wasting your time.”
We were near the end. I wanted to tell him I loved him. I wanted to tell him not to go.
He said, “Justin, listen to me.”
“If you remember one thing, one thing and only one thing in this life, remember this. Are you with me?”
“The world doesn’t belong to assholes. Now stop behaving like one.”
I couldn’t spit it out fast enough.
“Fuck you, man!”
I tore the photograph in my hand into four pieces and threw them in the air. I leaned forward in my chair and horked great gobs of spit all over the photographs on the table in front of me.
“Fuck you, man! Fuck you, fuck you, and fu-uck you!”
Sly leaned across the table, grabbed me by the collar, and threw me on the floor. Then he kicked me down the hallway and tossed me into the street. I fumbled for my cellphone and called a cab.
“Jesus motherfucking Christ,” I screamed into Sly’s machine later that evening. “Are you ever dead! Are you ever motherfucking dead!”
But he was by then, and the incident was closer than ever.
He was killed by a jealous boyfriend. That wasn’t what the West Coast wanted to hear, but those were the facts. I’ve told many people what I’m going to tell you now and probably only one in ten agreed with me. Sly would have appreciated being brought down by one of the world’s primal furies.
“Why do you say that?” Lily asked.
“Because he was prone to them himself.”
“That’s no answer.”
“Because Sly respected primal furies. He respected chaos. He knew his life was a loan.”
The West Coast wanted Sly’s death to have blockbuster status. The dicks were sent out. Give us cause, give us reason. The West Coast didn’t want to be associated with a quiet, woody tale of New Hampshire teenage lust (the girl’s football captain boyfriend plugged him). The West Coast had its own rules, its own expectations. It looked at Sly’s death and demanded a re-write. A down-note ending? No, no. Send it back. Give us something we can believe. I forgot about my phone message. The dicks found it. My words made the papers. My face made CNN, Entertainment Tonight. My star flashed once, twice, then flared out. I didn’t kill Sly. I had nothing to do with it. The police discovered that quickly enough. They locked me up for twelve hours, but they let me go. They interviewed me and cleaned out my drugs. They had nothing to hold me on. Bigger fish, bigger kicks, drew them away from me. I only saw this later, when the drugs finally let go. When Lily was gone. When I turned my thoughts – finally – to tomorrow. And how things began. The West Coast didn’t forget, though. The West Coast thought I was in on it. The West Coast wanted me to be in on it. The world doesn’t belong to assholes, Sly had said. I tried to reform. I tried to get back on track.
I really did.