Here’s the opening of a new Douglas Glover short story, just published in Descant’s amazing 40th anniversary issue entitled Possible Worlds. It’s a fabulous issue, contains work by Steven Heighton (well known to NC readers), Nancy Huston, Josef Skvorecky, Alberto Manguel and Susan Swan among many other notables. Like all dg’s stories this one is autobiographical, nearly a memoir, exposes sidelights of his family life hitherto unrevealed to the reading public. Buy the magazine and read the tawdry remainder.
Uncle Boris up in a Tree
By Douglas Glover
The photo was taken just before all hell broke loose. Uncle Boris, always the clown, perches on a tree branch above the family group, making a mockery of the occasion. Jannik, the wastrel, smiles inscrutably. Bjorn, the straight arrow, looks like a man with all the troubles of the world on his shoulders, but he works in a bank in town and can afford a gold watch and fob. His eyes are closed. Gurn, the insane one, his mouth twisted from a horse kick, seems merely confused, innocent, and anxious. And Lisel, the compulsive smoker and Bible reader, has momentarily suppressed her persistent and fatal cough. The three young ones huddle with Ma and Pa: Trig, later executed for murder, only six in the photo and dressed like a girl; Grete who became a great lover; and little Nikolai, the math genius, eight months old. Bjorn’s wife Olga, plain as a pine plank but seething with desire, leans against the tree trunk next to Jannik. Aunt Doreen, flighty, excitable, and dim, stares at the camera warily. Daphne, the family slut, has her hands in her skirt pockets and her head tilted to one side.
It begins like this: a family dinner, al fresco, despite the lateness of the year, just after the turnips were in and the hog slaughtered. Bjorn walks behind the barn to pee and discovers his wife Olga in a passionate embrace with Jannik, the wastrel. At first, the couple remain unaware of Bjorn’s presence. They whisper sweet, desperate nothings in each other’s ear. “Oh, my little potato bug!” “Oh, you bad boy, you bad bad boy, oh!” Bjorn knows that Jannik sleeps with girls in town. He’s even discussed with Olga how Jannik seduced one of the bank tellers. Jannik is drunk half the time. He borrows money from his parents to spend at the dance halls and buy presents for his girls. Bjorn sees nothing charming in him. When they were boys, Bjorn was forever finishing the fights Jannik provoked. The scene behind the barn repulses Bjorn. He doesn’t want to be the straight arrow any more. Suddenly, he doesn’t remember why he married Olga. They have been trying to have a baby for three years, long nights of sweaty labour sawing away under the goose feather quilt. She nags at him to ask Herr Grimmig for a raise. She is always accusing him of sleeping with the tellers at the bank. She calls the teller pool his private harem. Now she sighs and squeals, trembling in Jannik’s embrace; Jannik thrusts himself against her and fumbles with her skirts. The white flesh of her doughy thighs flashes in the October sunlight. Seeing her flesh, Bjorn feels an unaccustomed throb of desire. He should object, but there is nothing he can say now that will make this scene better. Yet he cannnot tear himself away. Then Olga, with a shriek, notices him at the corner of the barn. Their eyes meet. It breaks the spell. Bjorn claps his hat on his head and turns on his heel, thinking only of escape, relieved almost, turgid with desire. Suddenly, time, which had seemed forever stalled in a state of minute reiterations of itself, begins to flow again. He feels the current under his elbows, pulling him along. Olga frantically pushes Jannik away. Bjorn glimpses drab nether hair, petticoats, and Jannik’s erect penis like a small purple heart. Olga catches up with him at the gate. “That didn’t mean anything,” she says. “I had too much potato vodka. Jannik made me. I was confused.” Bjorn towers over her. He can’t think of anything to say. It seems like a speech from some other drama, staged long ago. Her breath smells like red onions and garlic, an odour he associates with love. “Anyway, I’m pregnant,” she says. Bjorn’s shoulders sag. Suddenly, the doors of his cage clang shut again. The doors are called duty and responsibility. The entire family is watching from the blankets spread on the lawn amid the squirts of goose shit and pats of cow dung. Chickens, geese, and six-week-old shoats wander from plate to plate looking for leftovers. “Enough,” says Bjorn, allowing himself to be led back to the festivities. Jannik’s shirttail hangs out. He throws his head back and guffaws at something Pa says. There is a war in Bjorn’s head. Briefly, he becomes a philosopher. He thinks, What does it mean to be alive? How should one behave? He looks up at the sky, cold and numbingly blue. Trig, always the sensitive one, bursts into tears. Uncle Boris is climbing the tree again, trying to make everyone laugh. Bjorn catches up a bottle of potato vodka from the blanket and whirls away. He has the air of a man who is never coming back. Two of the shoats start to drag baby Nikolai toward the bushes. Daphne, the slut, laughing, rescues him and clutches him to her breasts. Olga cries, “If it’s a boy, we’ll name him Bjorn.”
I’ve been excited about this story since DG read some of it at last summer’s VCFA residency. Looking forward to diving in.
If I ever have another son, I, too, will call him Bjorn. I will encourage him to study philosophy and learn the ways of men. I will also mispronounce his name as long as he allows.
Good luck, Bjorn!
(Sharp stuff, of course, dg)
The intro scene to your memoir, er “short story,” reminds me of my all time favorite memoir – Fellini’s Amarcord, especially the al fresco family dinner with Uncle Teo up the tree repeatedly shouting “I want a woman” (or something like that). Although, I hasten to add, Fellini’s family was tame relative to yours, ah, er, your fictional family.
Looking forward to reading the rest.
When I say these characters have a lewd and tawdry wit about them, I mean it in the highest form of compliment. My favorite verb in the passage is definitely “sawing.” Will this be a part of the next story collection?
Another remarkable cast…once again I’m hooked…will definitely be looking forward to reading the “tawdry remainder”…. Sharp stuff, indeed.