Over the last decade David Helwig has published a number of books, ranging from novellas such as The Stand-In and Killing McGee to the longer narratives in his story collection Mystery Stories. All these explore the possibilities of middle length narrative forms. “The Road,” another of these continuing explorations, comes from David’s new book, Simon Says. Simon Says is made up of seven stories in dialogue that take place at moments throughout the life of one man, Simon McAlmond (1935-2010). They present his life through the complex texture of dramatic speech in which nothing is merely told in narrative form, but a great deal is overheard. What is said by Simon, to Simon, and about Simon creates a subtle and complex portrait of a life; the reader is set to learn by observation, to draw conclusions that are never forced.
David is an old friend and an amazingly prolific author of poems, translations, stories, novels and a memoir. In 2007 he won the Writers’ Trust of Canada Matt Cohen Prize for distinguished lifetime achievement. In 2009 he was appointed to the Order of Canada. His book publication list is as long as your arm. He founded the annual Best Canadian Stories which he edited for years. Biblioasis will publish in 2012 a collection of David’s translations of Chekhov stories, one of which appeared on Numéro Cinq. See also his poems on NC here and here and here and here! His new fiction book, Simon Says, from which this story is taken, will be published later this year by Oberon Press.
We should go back.
Fuck off, Simon.
This is crazy, Janice. It’s pitch dark. You’ve already fallen down once.
I’ll have a black eye and my face will be covered with bruises, and I’ll tell everyone that you hit me.
Don’t be ridiculous.
And everyone will believe it, Simon.
No they won’t.
You have a reputation.
Not for that.
You have such a reputation. You remember that concert at the university you took me to last year. When I went off to the toilet. I just wanted to be alone. Sometimes it was like that when I was with you. I felt so crazy I couldn’t stand anyone to look at me. And while I was sitting in my little cubical, just letting myself be quiet, two girls came in, you know, chattering, and the one said to the other, ‘So what else are you going to do this year while you’re writing your thesis?’ and the other one said, ‘I’m going to have an affair with Simon McAlmond.’ I started to shiver, like I was freezing. I couldn’t come out until I knew they were gone. Then I thought I should have opened the door, so I could see who she was. Who was going to have an affair with you. I knew ever since then I couldn’t stand it any more.
People talk. It doesn’t mean anything.
They know if anyone gives you a look, you’ll look right back.
Let’s stop this now, my love, and go back to the cottage.
I’m not your love. So just fuck off, Simon. Fuck off, fuck off, fuck off.
You really think we’re going to walk all the way to the city?
Well, the battery on my car is dead, and yours is trapped there in that little narrow driveway, so what else can I do?
You should have remembered to turn the car lights off.
Well I didn’t. Stupid Janice. I had things on my mind. I finally worked up the courage.
In the morning we can get your car started.
Go back if you want. I’m not.
This is crazy, you know. You’re going to trip and break that long elegant neck.
Crazy Janice. Well it’s better than going back to the cottage and letting you get me into bed. I’m never doing that again. It’s over.
Some things are never over.
That’s what you’re going to tell me. Kiss me on the eyes. Run your hands through my hair.
Some stories end and some stories don’t.
You and me I suppose?
If you thought that you should have stopped passing your dick around the community.
You said ‘Leave your wife,’ so I left my wife. What else is it you want?
You were with Catherine last week.
We have children. I visit them.
Until three in the morning.
You’re making that up.
No. I have evidence. I have reliable testimony.
You have your own jealous suspicions.
I have spies, Simon. They watch you and report to me.
Private detectives, I suppose.
Very private. And they do it just for me.
I greatly hope all this nonsense isn’t true.
It’s true, Simon Dippydick. I have you watched.
And just who would do this watching and besetting? I suppose they hide behind trees and garbage bins.
Cerise’s son. She brings him into the store to move boxes of books and tidy the back room. He adores me.
Who doesn’t? I’m sure that’s why half the customers come to the bookstore. All the men who claim they want you to tell them about the newest John Irving or Tom Wolfe or Margaret Atwood, and they really just want you to talk to them.
Henry’s very loyal, Simon. He’s my little horny robot. I used to notice how he’d bump into me sometimes, sort of by accident, out in the stock room, and I’d just smile and send him out for coffee. I knew what he was doing and I let him, and now he’ll do whatever I want.
You’re trying to convince me that you sent some pathetic juvenile out to dog my footsteps.
He’s very good at it. He makes notes.
And as a reward you permit him to cop a feel now and then in the storeroom.
Don’t be crude. He thinks I’m beautiful.
Oh you say so. You always say so. It’s part of your technique.
We all think you’re beautiful. Every man you pass on the street.
Except the ones who think I’m ugly.
You just tripped again.
How do you know?
I could hear.
I didn’t fall down.
So? It’s dark.
Watch your step, and stay in the middle of the road.
Just leave me alone.
This is dangerous, Janice, walking along here in the dark. Apart from being insane. We should go back.
My first boyfriend thought I was kind of ugly. ‘You’ve got a really weird face,’ he used to say.
Why did you bother with him?
He was very popular, and I was this misfit who studied dance and couldn’t talk to anybody. I liked it that he paid attention to me. I thought he was cute. He said the way I wagged my tail when I walked gave him a big hard-on.
All that dance training.
What about your husband?
What about him?
Did he think you were beautiful?
For a while. Then he kind of lost interest. That was when I started dance classes again. And then he moved to Dawson City and I didn’t.
I’ve often wondered whether beautiful girls become dancers or whether dancing teaches them how to be beautiful.
So have you had sex with a lot of dancers, Simon Dippydick?
So you say.
How far is it to the highway?
Another couple of miles.
How far is that in kilometres?
Three and a third.
Do you remember the night we spent in a motel somewhere up here? We didn’t sleep. Hardly at all. When you first got me and you were showing off.
I don’t remember.
Dreams are like that.
You think it was a dream? Seems like it now. Long hot night. Do you think this is a dream, the two of us stumbling along on a dark road through the woods, you begging me to forgive you?
I haven’t begged you to forgive me.
There’s no reason.
So easy to forget. Oh so easy.
Watch your step, the hill’s getting steeper.
I don’t care if I fall down again. Just more evidence that you abused me. Threw me on the ground and dragged me over the stones.
Why do you say those things?
Because that’s what you do, you abuse me. You can’t keep your eyes off other women. We walk into a room, and it’s like we’re in a brothel, and you’re checking out the selection. ‘Is she to your taste sir, or would you like something a little more plump and comfy? More heft in the bosom?’ Can’t keep your eyes off them. Or your hands either. ‘What are you going to do this term?’ they all say. ‘Oh, I’m going to have an affair with Simon McAlmond.’
There’s been nobody else for two years.
Except your wife, and probably a couple of late afternoon quickies with obliging undergraduates.
While you’re in the back room letting Henry fondle you.
I don’t let him go that far.
There’s been nobody else.
I’m going to quit the bookstore anyway. I don’t need him anymore.
You’ve been there what? Four years?
I’m tired of working for Cerise.
It’s not a bad job.
I know just what I’m going to do. I’m going back to school and become a dental hygienist. They make good money, you know, and they’re in demand. Everyone is obsessed with perfect teeth. Imagine me bending over some sweet-looking young thing, her mouth’s wide open, and I push aside that dainty pink tongue, to scrape away the gumbo, and whenever I want to, if she makes me mad, looks like some girl you’d like, I scrape a little too hard, so it hurts her. ‘Just another couple of minutes,’ I say, and go back to tormenting her. Poking away at the sensitive places. Or it’s a big guy with tobacco breath and a thick red tongue who thinks he can handle pain, until I find an exposed root and go to work on it. I see the panic in his eyes as he lies flat out in the chair, me safe behind my white mask, my rubber gloves. And I imagine it’s you.
The first time I saw you, I thought to myself, ‘She is so very lovely, but she might be a little strange.’
You couldn’t wait to get me into bed. You thought I’d be so hot.
Simon! What’s that noise?
Scared me half to death.
Whip-poor-will. That’s the sound they make.
What’s it doing out here in the night?
They’re night birds.
They’re damn loud.
Yes. You don’t hear them all that often.
There he is again. ‘Whip-poor-will.’
They’re members of the goatsucker family.
Go suck a goat, Simon.
They fly above the trees at night, eating insects. Huge open mouths. I suppose that’s how they got the name.
Go suck a goat. Oh ouch, ouch . . . damn.
I twisted my ankle.
We really have to go back.
Far enough now that there’s no point.
It’s not that far.
No, Simon, you reach a certain place and you can’t go back. I learned that when I finally quit dancing.
Your children never liked me, did they?
They don’t really know you.
I’ve been around for quite a while.
But you hardly ever see them.
Kind of spoiled. That’s what I thought the day we went to that movie with them, that Indiana Jones thing. Spoiled brats. Especially Lorna.
As are you, my love. A spoiled brat.
I’m not, and I’m not your love, not any more, Simon. It’s finished.
So you tell me.
I came all the way out here to say it, and I did.
And I’m not spoiled. I pay my way. I wanted Henry to spy on you so I let him bump up against me in the back room
I know what’s fair. And you don’t.
You don’t think I pay my share.
That`s just money. You always pay the bill in restaurants. But that just makes me feel like a whore.
You keep changing your rules. What I’m supposed to do or not supposed to do.
There are no rules.
You think you have rules. You think you have all kinds of rules.
I try to have certain standards.
What about the sex standard? Am I good?
Am I the best you ever had in your life?
No other girl gives it like I do.
But you don’t care enough to say so.
I’m sure I have.
No, you just take me to Toronto to nice restaurants and pay the bill, and we shack up in some classy hotel. Or we go to Montreal and you offer me hand-made leather boots. At first I liked being your whore, but now I don’t.
It seems I can’t do anything right.
God, I’d like to have you in the dentist chair. I would put that steel tool so far into the sensitive roots of your teeth that you’d scream and beg and cry like a baby.
Because you sneak off and screw your wife.
Your friend Henry is a liar. He tells you what he thinks you want to hear.
You never loved me, not once.
So what am I doing out here on this dangerous steep rocky road through the Laurentian Shield in the middle of the night, stumbling along with you while you try to walk all the way back to the city? Which you will never be able to do. And which is insufferably stupid.
So I’m stupid. I was never smart enough for you, was I Simon? Not like those little university geniuses in their lace panties.
I didn’t say you were unintelligent. I said you were being stupid.
And you think I’m a weakling.
No, I just think it’s twenty miles or more and your feet will give out.
What about yours, Simple Simon?
I’m sure they’ll give out too.
Well why don’t you just go back now?
Because I don’t want to drive along here in the morning and find you lying on the road wounded or dead.
You could handle it. You have that boy scout emergency pack in the trunk of your car. You can deal with anything.
That’s for winter.
If we’re talking about stupid, what about that plastic case with the folding shovel and the candle and matches and a chocolate bar.
Prepared on the best advice.
Whatever you say.
Maybe when I get to the highway I’ll hitch-hike.
It’s two o’clock in the morning. There won’t be anybody on the road.
There’s always somebody.
Not somebody you should be accepting a ride with.
You mean it might be some big bad man who expects little Janice to put out in exchange for the ride. Well little Janice is prepared to take down her pants in those emergency circumstances. Better than going to some motel and letting you put the moves on me.
Maybe we should stop talking for a while.
So stop. I don’t care. Turn around and go back to your cottage and settle in there for the winter.
We’re selling the cottage.
Splitting things up. It seemed simplest.
So where will you take your women?
I’ll take them to Toronto, and we’ll shack up in some classy hotel.
And you’ll give them the whole routine.
‘Oh you’re so beautiful, and you’re so unusual . . . take off your clothes’
Oh fuck you, Simon. Go back to your cottage and jerk off. Phone the next girl on your list. Do whatever you want, but leave me alone.
Out here at night in the dark.
I don’t think I can leave you here in the middle of the woods.
Well you have to leave me somewhere. You have to listen to me and understand that. You have to leave me somewhere, even if you truly think I’m the most beautiful woman in the world.
When we get to the village I’ll get two separate units in the motel, and in the morning we’ll find a garage and get your car going.
Don’t be so helpful. Just go.
In the morning.
Oh fuck off, Simon. Just fuck off.