Apr 022012

Bill Gaston

Herewith a hilariously good story (the hilarity darkly edged with care) about bad writing (the 57-year-old manager of a hockey rink trying to write the perfect bad sentence for a fictional version of the real annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest) from Bill Gaston who has, yes, contributed already to Numéro Cinq and has laboured mightly in the fields of fiction yea these many years–during the ten years I edited the annual Best Canadian Stories, I included Bill Gaston stories three times. Bill is a prolific author of novels, plays, stories and nonfiction. His seventh novel, The World, will come out this fall with Hamish Hamilton. He writes about the human comedy with gentle irony, grace, poignance, and an earthy sense of humour.



His sister’s phone call interrupted him composing his next bad sentence:

               Her thighs pulled apart with the sound of

Raymond let Elizabeth talk. When she was done he dropped his phone from a height and with a noise that made him check for broken plastic. He couldn’t take it anymore. Leaning back in his chair he balanced on the two rear legs and on the verge of toppling, a position he found comfortable. He had learned not to hear the muffled booming of pucks in the six rinks outside his office’s glass door, but he heard them now. Moaning low and long, he built it nearly to a shout. As always, he was damned if he said something and damned if he didn’t. After a week’s research, his sister, who was only 53, was convinced not only of having Alzheimer’s, but a particularly swift kind that attacked the young. His sincerely-intentioned comment–that if she had Alzheimer’s she couldn’t have done such excellent research on Alzheimer’s–caused her to announce, “You just abandoned me,” and hang up.

He didn’t know what to do. It hurt to think about. Because he loved her, he supposed.

Raymond let his chair fall forward. He picked up his pencil. She’d be crying now. The one up side to these more explosive conversations was that she likely wouldn’t call him for a week. Unless…she forgot. No, he mustn’t make light of this. She did display more memory loss of late, more than just the name-forgetting kind, and both their parents had gone daffy before they died. Her condition was probably real, but her panic was unbearable. Today asking him, all a-fever, if she should check her iron levels again, because they can point to arterial blockage and oxygen depletion in—her voice was shaking and what’s he supposed to say?

Raymond never panicked. It dismayed him that his older sister could be so different in this way. They were only two years apart. They had the same curly ginger hair, the same swelling cheekbones with unfortunate small eyes. They were both high-strung and made impractical life decisions. Their tastes were so similar that it didn’t surprise him, for instance, to learn Elizabeth disliked Chilean wine and had taken to Spanish and that her reasons were exactly his.

Shaking his head minutely, in the kind of spasm that did mean to abandon his sister for a week, Raymond leaned over his foolscap to read his latest. This was the best time of year, these spring weeks leading up to the deadline. He finished reading it, hesitating on a breath to pencil-tap it with approval. Fixing a few circled bits as he went, he committed this to his computer screen:

Her thighs pulling apart with the sound of a low-grade adhesive, Jungle Jones eyed his next conquest, tried and failed again to grunt like one of his idols, a Silverback, rose to his feet and leapt to the liana vine, from which he fell because he was tired, from all the conquesting.

It wasn’t his best but it was a keeper he’d enter in the Romance category, under one of his pseudonyms. Marvin Gets. Westley Winns. Thomas Smother. It was Thomas Smother who won a Dishonorable Mention two years ago in the Detective category. Raymond had that one committed to memory:

As they lay waiting in the alley, involuntarily spooning, for the thugs to run past, his overcoat could not cushion him from the press of her Luger, which made his own gun feel like nothing but a Mauser in his belt—because that’s all he had, a lousy Mauser—so he was glad his back was to her. 

He could recall the spreading glow in his stomach when notified. He remembered how surprised he’d been that this one had won, it was nowhere near the best of the thirty or so he’d submitted that year–and the contest itself dissuaded the use of the dash.

He copied his sentence to the body of a new email and popped Send, nostalgic for the days it was done by letter. One entry per envelope. Stamps did get expensive but everything about good old mail—the labour of addressing, the folding of paper and taste of glue, the frisky walk in all kinds of weather to the mail box, not to mention the primal sliding a letter through a spring-loaded slot—suited the contest’s archaic soul. Apparently there was a torrent of complaints when it changed.

This year Raymond’s goal was one hundred entries. He was at fifty-seven. He no longer cared much if he won. The goal was the path.


As on-site manager of ArenaSix, Raymond was content enough with his job, it being understood that work was work and one would rather be elsewhere. He kept the ice surfaces near to booked and between sessions resurfaced, the two Zambonis in repair, the monthly schedules publicized, the bar/restaurant staffed with nubiles (as Nabokov had called them), and the hockey parents away from the throats of the parents of figure skaters (though the skaters’ parents, especially mothers, tended as a species to be the fiercest, and blind to compromise). And though his job also oversaw the losing battle to keep beer out of the changing rooms during men’s late-night hockey, it was, as jobs went, not torture.

Though on occasion he had to fire someone. This morning it was Mr Fernandez, one of his two maintenance men. Through his damnable glass door Raymond had been eyeing Mr Fernandez perched out there on the bench, waiting in the cold. No-one should have to wait in the cold on a bench like that one, wooden and skate-mauled, let alone someone about to be fired. Raymond was further disappointed that the man hadn’t had the good graces to come alone. As always, he’d brought Paytro (likely the name was Pedro, but it always sounded just like “Paytro”), as if he didn’t know his son was the heart of the problem. Paytro had Down Syndrome, was perhaps in his adolescence, and he never stopped fidgeting, especially a grand rolling of one hand around the axis of his wrist. The boy held his twirling hand out from his body in a way that suggested ritual, and because each roll made the faintest click, Raymond knew it nauseated the patrons of this place just as it nauseated him. Despite two warnings, Mr Fernandez insisted, intermittently at first and then always, on bringing Paytro with him to work.

Raymond re-read the sentence on his screen. He popped it black.

He stood, stretched, then opened the door to Mr Fernandez, who, predictably, ushered wrist-rolling Paytro in first.

The whole affair was predictably uncomfortable. Mr Fernandez nodded when asked if he knew why he was being called in, and then he demanded that Raymond explain things to his son.

“I would like to hear you say to Paytro why we are not wanted any more,” is how the glowering maintenance man put it.

Why explain what Fernandez already knew, that the problem was the “we”? Fernandez had proved an excellent painter, cleaner and, most of all, fixer. In the shop he’d used a grinding machine to shape a piece of scrap metal that somehow fixed the number two Zamboni. The problem was solely the “we.” Paytro was never not with him. More and more, Fernandez gave him jobs to do. Sometimes, the father simply stood watching the son sweep or rake or polish.

“Your son gets in the way of you doing the job you were hired to—”

“Say this to Paytro. Look at him when you say it.”

Now Fernandez was only being cruel. Fine.

“Paytro, I’ve asked your father to come to work alone, and he refuses. I’ve asked him formally, twice. We call them warnings. He ignores—”

“Tell Paytro why you want me to work alone.”

“Fine.” Raymond swung his gaze back to the son. The boy watched him back. He was hard to read. It was hard to know what he understood. “Your father is a good worker, a highly skilled worker, and that is what we pay—”

It came out shouted, sloppy, but with equal emphasis on each word: “I’m a good worker too.”

“Yes, but—”

He’s teaching me.”

What struck Raymond most was the boy’s utter lack of accent, seeing that his father’s was so thick. Paytro had hidden his twirl-hand in his windbreaker and it humped around in there, shushing the nylon. Raymond recalled times he’d spied on Fernandez as he supervised Paytro scrubbing solvent on puck marks or, outside, sweeping the leaf-blower in scythe-like arcs. Fernandez would interrupt and take over his son’s slow job, demonstrating proper pace, then hand back the gear. Raymond suspected that the father-son team was productive enough to justify Fernandez’s salary. It was that he’d been told to come alone and he’d blatantly ignored the order. A boss could not just ignore being ignored. In a hierarchy, insurrection demanded—no, created–consequences. It was nothing but natural, and Raymond must let nature take its course.

He spoke clearly and met Paytro’s eye.

“You are a good worker. I am glad he is teaching you. But, as manager, I have to end your father’s employment here. The reason? I told him to come to work alone, and he didn’t obey me. I told him twice. Then I told him three times.”

Looking at Fernandez, he once again explained that insurance didn’t cover his son who, if hurt, could sue both of them. Surprising himself, Raymond added that, once fired, Fernandez could apply again for his job. Finally, he said he could supply him a good reference letter if he wanted, but Fernandez was already shaking his head in automatic disbelief and leaving, guiding Paytro out the door ahead of him.

But first Fernandez stopped, turned to face Raymond, ponderously held his eye to say, in his heavy accent, “Look at youself,” then left.

Raymond respected Fernandez enough to do this, so he sat down. The instructive silence grew louder with the man gone. He sat with this task for several minutes, then flipped open his laptop. It was likely the start of an entry for Romance:

“An unexamined life,” she said, naked of irony as well as clothing,


He saved it and closed his machine. Raymond had learned that when he memorized an opening fragment and then went about his day, some part of his brain kept working behind the scenes and came up with good bad ideas.

Down an employee, he had to scrape and flood three ice surfaces himself. It was a chore he found more meditative than anything else, though skaters did complain, especially the old-timer hockey players who, though hardly speedsters anymore, demanded the most pristine surface, like they were fairies of the pond, not chuggers. But he couldn’t quite find the knack, or settings, and he left grooves. He wished he could have accelerated hiring a new man, but you couldn’t very well advertise before firing, could you?

          “An unexamined life,” she said, naked of irony as well as clothing,

Riding high on the Zamboni, he let phrases simmer as he drove an oddly rectangular oval, old mauled snow disappearing under the front bumper while a strip of shining water followed. He tried to work up more:

as they rode together on the Zamboni, its engine beneath their bare, cold bottoms droning deeply but blindly, like a massive phallus asleep but prowling in its dream

Bad-on-purpose was anything but easy. It had to be knowing. It had to be subtle in its build to looniness. (He mentally crossed out the massive-phallus-asleep line, which was somehow both too cheap and too poetic.) Its clauses had to invert and sometimes buckle and then flow horribly on. Its clichés had to be the right ones. Puns were discouraged unless they stretched pun-logic to snapping. The best entries tended to rise in limp-frenzy and end not on a punchline but a downbeat, like tobacco spittle after a hillbilly whoop–which was how it might indeed be described in Bulwer-Lytton language. It was a near-impossible contest to win, with its thousands upon thousands of entries. This despite no cash reward at all. Detective, Western, SciFi, Romance, Historical, Fantasy—all categories had their aficionados, their style-mavens. Sometimes Raymond knew the entrants before reading their names.

Cruising rink number three he came upon another bit. After parking and shutting down (he simply left the snow to sit and melt in the Zamboni’s back bin instead of dumping it outside; Bernie was on in an hour and he’d do that chore, grumbling and swearing), he hurried back upstairs to type:

“An unexamined life,” she said, naked of both irony and clothing, as they rode atop the Zamboni, its engine beneath their bare, cold bottoms droning deeply but blindly in its work, which when you thought of it was nothing but eating snow at the front and spewing water out the back, “is

Is what. Nothing more came. He opened a new file. He was hungry, and it was almost time to go, but he had a palpable sense of time running out. It was getting down to the wire. He stood hovering over the keyboard, shifting foot to foot on his office’s weird rubber floor, stepping in and out of two pools of water under his shoes. It wasn’t just taking a good idea one bad step too far. It was rhythm, too, it was building a good sentence with a tin-ear clunk to sabotage it.

After ten minutes he had this:

Her heart’s desire ran in two directions, the main one leading to her husband, the other to Jungle Jones, but her lust ran in even more directions, so many that the word “direction” lost all meaning, like when you said it over and over, say, a hundred or, in her case, four hundred and sixty-three times.


Raymond had no idea who the hell Jungle Jones was, what he looked like, or what readers—if there were any–made of the name. It just sounded right. It was funny in that slightly gut-churning way.

He pressed Send. Submitting entries he knew wouldn’t win felt a bit like throwing letters at a closed mailbox. Or—like pissing at a tree protected by glass! He typed is like pissing on a tree protected behind glass to the end of An unexamined life. He read it a couple of times. Then deleted it. It was too abstract, however astute it might be philosophically.

He was closing his laptop, anticipating his nicer screen at home, when the phone rang. Elizabeth’s bouts of solitary depression did usually last a while, plus she did tend to respect his request not to call him at work, so he was surprised it was her a second time this afternoon. Her tone of saying hello told him she was beyond instructing, so he kept censure from his voice when he told her how nice it was to hear from her again today. She ignored him, interrupted him in fact, and what she said sat him up straight.

“Raymond. I want to kill myself, sooner rather than later, and I want your help.”

“My help, to…”

“To do it, yes.”

He could picture the musty brown couch she was probably sitting on, its fabric one that reminded him of haunted theatres, and it made him sadder than her words had. He asked her to repeat herself, and she did so, word for word, including his name with the period after it, as if to make sure he knew he could not escape.

After the call, Raymond sat for a while. He neither moved nor intended to. Pucks boomed meaningless pronouncements outside his door. He promised himself he would not feel guilt when he opened his laptop. When he did, he typed this:

Jungle Jane wasn’t given to cheap sentiment, but she wondered, fingering the noose around her neck, test-rocking the rickety chair beneath her feet, thinking disturbedly of the empty pill bottles scattered like Hansel’s bread crusts along the sidewalk all the way to her house, if he would still respect her tomorrow.


With the deadline creeping ever closer, over the next weeks Raymond finished thirty-nine more sentences, taking him to ninety-six. Five he considered exceptional, with a solid chance at a prize or a mention. He’d been coming to work distracted. He wrestled awkward phrases in his dreams and a good dangling modifier could wake him. One Saturday night he stayed up till dawn and one weeknight he slept in and was an hour late for work, two things that had never happened before. He stopped taking Elizabeth’s calls and she did try to kill herself, half-heartedly and without his help, displaying both her indecision and impatience in this as in all things. Since taking up residence in the psych ward she seemed more stoically content than she had in years. She was proud to have improved at Sudoku and she thought her memory disease was getting better but Raymond could tell it wasn’t and suspected it was just the structured regimen of hospital life, though of course he said nothing. He lost half of the pinky finger of his left hand while trying to adjust the height ratchet of the scraper under the number two Zamboni, and now it hurt like the devil to type, but almost a ghost pain, because his pinky never had touched keys in the first place and it certainly didn’t now. Several times he saw Paytro out on the main street near the arena complex, quite alone, walking steadily as if pulled by the propeller of his rotating hand. Mr Fernandez didn’t reapply for his job, though Raymond continued to wish he had, because MacLean, the new fellow he’d hired, scared him with a latent insubordination so severe he thought it could some day become violent. Maybe it was MacLean’s prison tattoos on the knuckles of his hand, “JESUS” or not, the “J” almost unrecognizable there on the thumb. The man made good ice, but could barely bring himself to nod when Raymond wished him good morning or have a nice weekend. So Raymond stopped saying these things.

And, God knows why but tonight, the night of the deadline and with four more entries to make one hundred, he went on the date he’d found excuses to put off for months and months. It was his first date in easily a dozen years, more like fifteen and perhaps closer to twenty. It had also been that long since he’d had sex. It was in the back of his mind that, Yes, he was probably giving it one last chance. Not just romance, but everything, anything. Her name was Leslie and she lived on the same floor; theirs had been an elevator relationship since she moved in. She was shy to the point of being monosyllabic. He suspected correctly that it would make her even more nervous, but because he never went out himself he took her to an absurdly high-end seafood place that had recently opened, called only small “s,” a simple unlit woodblock affixed to the cement wall. (Apparently the famous chef’s previous restaurant had been called only “sea.”) He could tell one part of her wanted to make some kind of racy joke out of ordering the raw oysters appetizer but couldn’t bring herself to do it. Instead she ate them non-theatrically and as if embarrassed. He picked one up with his injured hand, the bandage only recently off, knowing it would look ugly, and he positioned it near his ear and knit his brow for a few seconds, them simply put it back into its open shell, on its bed of ice. In a kind of answer to her own non-delivered joke, he had decided not to say, “Listening for pearls,” and instead made a promise with himself that if she was sensitive enough to know exactly what he’d just done, and what his joke had been, he would ask her to marry him. But she pretended not to have seen him do it. The food was very good, in some sense desperately good, and they spoke respectfully about each different dish, and how good the merlot was. That and careful politics, from which he could gather that she was the more liberal. He knew he could have sex if he wanted, but he didn’t. Nor did he want to analyze why.

After he stumbled over her name while saying goodnight to her outside their elevator like always, he got home, turned on his computer and read items from his favorite news sources. Headlines abounded concerning what some were calling “the most perfect storm,” wherein reports of final, irrefutable proof that ocean levels would indeed rise, combined with several countries colluding to default on their debt, appeared to be nudging global markets past anarchy toward total collapse. Next, he read local weather forecasts. Any dramatic change in temperatures meant he needed to adjust settings at work, for ice conditions. The next week appeared stable.

Raymond opened his files, found the sentence and typed:

“An unexamined life,” she said, cold naked ironic bum blah blah blah, “is like keeping your wings tucked, is like staying in the nest, is like staying in the egg, is like never being born.”

Thus completing that problem sentence. Which, for reasons too obvious to think about, he didn’t send.

Midnight was the deadline. He did reach ninety-nine, typing three more in a final flurry, sitting there at his laptop, sweating, good clothes still on and pinching at the throat and crotch, sentences that had been percolating throughout dinner. These he wrote without strategizing much, sentences a habit and certainly a pattern now, and after fixing a punctuation error he considered them finished. He simply pressed Send, three final times. He deemed them neither good nor bad, because you couldn’t tell anymore, you truly couldn’t. Especially in recent years, when even irony was used ironically, when bland-on-purpose square-danced with cool. Not that these were that.

In the restaurant so fancy it had no name at all, never blinking at him once she slowly slurped several slippery bivalves in an attempt to seduce him, which eventually would have worked, had she not had to pay a visit to the little girls’ room, where she sauntered to, to vomit. 

“Well if it’s grizzly bears you’re after,” Jungle Jane lisped at him from the dank, musky cavity of her cabin window, batting her one eyelash as she did, because one of her eyes lacked a lid, having been sliced off sometime during the squirrel-roast, “why don’t you just head round to my backyard and shoot one?”

It was the final climatic enormity whose name no one dared breathe, the news of which struck terror in the hearts of all men, and animals too, and sometimes even fish, who, though they generally lived under water, and lacked ears, could pick up on the hubbub and general nervousness of all the humans and animals stomping around in terror up there, especially on the beach.

—Bill Gaston


Bill Gaston’s seventh novel, The World, appears this fall. Previous novels include The Good Body, The Order of Good Cheer, and Sointula, which earned a “Discover Great New Writers” bump from Barnes and Noble. Recent collections are Gargoyles, and Mount Appetite. He lives on Vancouver Island.


  3 Responses to “At Work in the Fields of the Bulwer-Lytton: Short Story — Bill Gaston”

  1. A real pleasure to read… and good bad writing!

  2. The sad fish ending sent me in pursuit of more fish:
    “Those words are in a manual at the bottom of the ocean,
    where strange fish gnaw upon them,
    uncomprehending fish that mouth the strange words
    like relationship, perhaps, except, attachment.”
    -Pier Giorgio di Cicco, The Most Extraordinary Women in the World
    (the last 4 words are meant to be in italics)

  3. Hilarious!

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