Apr 302012

Once there was an ogre who was like all other ogres except in one respect: he was reasonable. He could see more than one point of view, and he liked to argue and discuss. People seldom realized this, however, since he looked like any other ogre, huge and frightening, and he spent his time doing what every other ogre does: grabbing passersby and stuffing them in his mouth. He lived in a cave by a crossroads, where he slept away most of the day; but if he was awake and heard footsteps, he rushed out with a roar and planted himself in the roadway. No matter how loudly the person screamed (they always screamed), he snatched them up in his great hairy hand and ate them in two or three bites, cleaning his teeth afterward with branches he’d torn off trees. — Mike Barnes, The Reasonable Ogre, Tales for the Sick and Well

Mike Barnes is a prolific and startlingly innovative writer of stories, poems, essays, novellas and memoir. “The Jailed Wizards” is yet again a leap into the wild frontier of the imagination, a beautiful, odd, disturbing, bleak, slyly comical, modern fairy tale (that is also about storytelling), written by an author who has encountered all sorts of darkness in his own life — he has written a a stunning memoir of his own struggle with psychosis The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis. “The Jailed Wizards” is from Mike’s forthcoming book The Reasonable Ogre (Biblioasis, 2012), with amazing illustrations by the Toronto artist Segbingway.

A little background: I met Mike Barnes years ago at The New Quarterly WILD WRITERS WE HAVE KNOWN CONFERENCE (see the famous 400-page double issue Volume XXI, Numbers 2 & 3) in Stratford. He appeared twice in Best Canadian Stories during the decade I was editor (which tells you what I think of his fiction).  He has already contributed some excerpts from a novel in progress and a novella — Ideas of Reference — to Numéro Cinq.


The Jailed Wizards

A wizard caught a rival wizard and locked him in a dungeon beneath his castle. First he stripped the captive of all his magical powers. Then he left him in a small, bare room, cold and damp and almost completely dark except for a bit of grayish light that leaked through a tiny barred window high above the floor. The stone walls were so thick that the imprisoned wizards—who were numerous, for the powerful wizard made war on anyone whose magic he felt threatened his own—could not even hear each other’s screams.

“How long will you keep me here?” the prisoner asked before his captor shut the stone door.

“How long does a wizard live?”

“Forever,” said the prisoner.

“That is how long you will remain,” said the powerful wizard. And he closed the massive door with a crash, and sealed it with an unbreakable spell.

Years passed. Twice a day a slot beside the door clanked open. The first time, a dirty hand pushed through a lump of stale bread and a cup of water; later, another dirty hand took back the cup. Nothing else occurred. Until one day the massive door creaked open on its ancient hinges, and the powerful wizard stood before his former rival, now filthy and wretched and listless with despair. “I have decided forever is the wrong sentence for you,” he announced. “There is a crack in the wall that lengthens a little each year. I am sure you have studied it. When it reaches the floor, I will let you go.”

“I thank you,” mumbled the prisoner.

“Don’t,” said the wizard. “This is not mercy. I want you to suffer as much as possible. Those who lose all hope do not suffer like those who still believe their suffering may one day end. That is all. Goodbye.”

Years passed again, but now they passed with the constant measuring of a tiny crack. Many times a day, the jailed wizard reached up and ran his hand over the break in the stone, wondering if it had lengthened by a hair or if he was only imagining that. It did, in fact, grow longer, but it did so with horrible slowness. Once, he did not allow himself to measure the crack for a hundred days—two hundred openings and closings of the slot—and when he measured it again, he was sure it was a finger’s width closer to the floor. Ten years passed in this way. Then twenty years. Then thirty. Now the crack in the wall had reached the level of his eyes. Now, he thought, I know I will get out one day. But when? In five hundred years? A thousand? I mustn’t think of that. One day I’ll leave.

Many long years later, the jailed wizard was standing next to the wall where he spent his days, examining the crack with his eyes and fingers to see if it had changed, when he was startled by a tiny movement just above him. Something very small and dark was moving within the crack. As the wizard watched, an ant stuck its head out of the crack, its tiny antennae moving in the stale air. Tears filled the wizard’s eyes to find his absolute loneliness broken by a visit from another creature, even an ant. Tears of joy and misery ran down his wrinkled face and into his long, dirty beard. Despite his extreme hunger, in the coming days he put little pellets of bread in the crack, and soon he had a line of ants he could watch, coming to get his crumbs and carrying them along the crack and out the window back to their nest. The sight brought joy and endless interest, and it stirred guilty memories.

Long ago, in one of the endless wars that are a wizard’s life, he had defeated a very minor wizard. The defeated wizard had been a storyteller, which is one of the lowest and most common grades of magic. Cruelly, out of sheer contempt, the victorious wizard had taken the defeated wizard’s strength and long life, though he had left him, as a power not worth stealing, his storytelling art. Now the jailed wizard struggled to remember what he had once known of this lesser magic. A story was at least a way of reaching other ears. This, after freedom, was what he longed for most.

Tiny animals, he remembered, were often used to gather stories and return them to the storyteller. Since the animals couldn’t speak our language, people told them things they would tell no other person, secure in the knowledge they could not repeat it. He couldn’t remember exactly how it was done, but even without a wizard’s magic he still had a wizard’s cunning, and he invented a way. He placed a tiny pellet of bread inside his ear and stood with his ear against the crack. Soon he felt the tickle of an ant entering his ear. He turned from the wall and plugged his ear with his finger. He felt the ant touch his finger and then, finding no way out, turn the other way and explore the inner chambers of his ear, walking around the words of the story in his head. When he judged that enough time had passed, he unplugged his ear and stood with his ear against the crack and let the ant find its way out. He watched it carry the pellet of bread and his story away up the crack toward the window high above. Would it carry it to someone who could understand? Would it be crushed under a careless foot? Perhaps he would need to tell a thousand stories to a thousand ants before one would find a listening ear. He could do that. Before his imprisonment he had lived a long, eventful life, each day of which had teemed with stories. Sitting with his back against the stone wall, he began to prepare the next one.

Some weeks later, in the village near the powerful wizard’s castle, an old, sick storyteller was sitting, as he always did, by the window of his hut. A line of bread crumbs and sugar led from his window to a stone covered with black ink, and beyond that to a sheet of clean white paper. The storyteller no longer had the strength to make up stories on his own, and he lived in the shrinking hope that one would come to him by itself. Day by day, ants walked over his trail of sugar crumbs and over his ink and paper. But the marks they made with their tiny inky feet spelled chaos, spelled nonsense—spelled nothing. Still, he had always done all he could do, and all he could do now was wait.

On this day, an ant came in across the window sill, walked down over his ink stone, and across his paper. Around it went in a circle—O—and then down, and up, and across a short curve, and down again—n. O . . . n . . . c . . . e—“Once,” the storyteller murmured with excitement, “once . . . and then?” Gently he sprinkled more sugar crumbs on the page, and waited, while the ant waved its antennae, and continued tracing letters with its feet.

I knew, I knew, I knew, whispered the storyteller. I knew there was no better place to wait than near a castle filled with jailed wizards, souls with endless tales to tell and no one but the ants to tell them to.

—Mike Barnes


Mike Barnes is the author of Calm Jazz Sea, shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, Aquarium, winner of the 1999 Danuta Gleed Award for best first book of stories by a Canadian, The Syllabus, a novel, and the short fiction collection Contrary Angel. His stories have appeared twice in Best Canadian Stories, three times in The Journey Prize Anthology, and won the Silver Medal for Fiction at the National Magazine Awards. He lives in Toronto.
Segbingway is an artist who lives in Toronto.
Apr 272012

My grandmother’s house was next thing to a museum warehouse, crowded with antiques and heirlooms. Every object had a story, a genealogy and a book of memories attached. At the drop of a hat, my grandmother would recite provenance and price, and tell the stories attached to the silver water jug, the diamond-glass breakfront, the drop-leaf table. My mother does the same today. Always to me, this seemed like a mysterious form of female knowledge, a special sort of lore — a distant male cousin was a collector, but collecting doesn’t derive from the same impulse, the impulse to meld object and memory.

Dawn Raffel has the gene, she could have been a blood relative. The short essays or vignettes in her gorgeous illustrated memoir The Secret Life of Objects wrap translucent memories, character and an appreciation of tactile beauty around a litany of possessions — in the following essays excerpted from the book, an Oriental rug and pottery seconds (or a moonstone ring in an essay published earlier on NC). The objects function psychologically as mnemonic devices; they function structurally to motivate narrative; and they function aesthetically as symbols — they are an ancient form of knowledge, deftly resurrected and deployed in a contemporary setting. They remind us that memory is absence, that the ultimate meaning of the objects is their capacity to temporarily contain some vestige of what has been left behind, the melancholy texture of life lived —  beautiful and achingly poignant.

The Secret Life of Objects is forthcoming in June with Jaded Ibis Productions.

Dawn hosts a discussion page at her web site. She hopes readers will take the opportunity of posting their own objects there.

And there will be a book party in New York on June 13. Watch her web page for more information.




The Rug

My maternal grandmother liked elegant old things and she would go to auctions to find them—end tables and porcelain urns and pretty rugs and lamps. By the time my grandparents were moving from the apartment where they’d raised my mother and uncle to a one-bedroom, my grandmother had amassed a collection of real Oriental rugs that she couldn’t take with her.

My mother didn’t want them. She liked everything modern: white leather, white carpet, chrome and glass. And so the only rug that stayed in the family was a tiny oriental rectangle that sat under my grandmother’s tea cart at the mouth of her galley kitchen. The cart was used to hold dishes to be brought to the little eating nook or to wheel demi glasses of tomato juice with lemon out to the metal folding table set up in the living room for Thanksgiving dinner.

My grandmother loved to cook and bake—from that cramped kitchen emerged paprika chicken with mushrooms and rice, lamb chops with jelly, key lime pie, lemon meringue, pineapple strudel, sponge cake and chocolate cake, layered and frosted and studded with walnuts. She would feed us and fuss, and each time we said goodbye, tears welled in her eyes. Sometimes she would mail us food she’d made.

My mother put cooking in the same box as old furniture and religious ritual—something oppressive, from a generation where women were subservient. She liked to remind me that her own grandmother had died of a heart attack while standing in a hot kitchen making Rosh Hashana dinner. She would point out her mother’s ankles swelling over the tops of her shoes as she stood at the counter chopping nuts or over the burner boiling dumplings. My mother wanted out with the old—the old country ways, old habits, obligations, dark and heavy furnishings, things that looked traditional or, worse, antique. Still, after my grandmother died and my grandfather moved out to California, my mother brought home that tiny rug, and she often lamented that she’d let the others go. She brought home her mother’s monogrammed purses (her own initials, always, not those of some designer), her gloves, her pinned hats. Her glassware and dishes, although they were heavily chipped. Her ornate gold watch, which my mother never wore (“After I die,” my mother said, “take it to New York and sell it.”  But my sister wanted it, although she never wears it either.) I believe those rugs were the only things she had given away and wished she’d had back. The sole remaining one went in my mother’s downstairs bathroom—there really wasn’t any other place for it in her white/glass/chrome suburban townhouse. It got threadbare.

Emptying my mother’s desk and dresser drawers after her death, I found notes everywhere, addressed to me and to my sister, having to do with what she wanted done with her possessions. Some of these notes must have been 20 years old, judging by the faded ink and by the fact that they referred to people long deceased as if they were alive. Some were more recent. All where handwritten. One of them instructed me to take the Oriental rug.

I had given that rug no thought at all and had no idea what to do with it. But here was my mother, dead, and still talking to me. I didn’t dare leave it, didn’t dare give it away. Right now the rug is under the desk in the office where I write.





When the children were small, almost every night when the weather was good, or simply good enough, I used to meet three other women in the park. We met around 7, after work. Our husbands were working later than we were—two were chefs in restaurant kitchens half the night. Exhausted from babies and toddlers and jobs and laundry and dishes that did not end, we’d heave our kids into the baby swings and push them and push them and pull them out—Brendan’s toddler cowboy boots would catch in the swing’s leg holes—and help them up ladders and into and out of wide plastic tunnels and chase them as they chased after fireflies across the open lawn. These weren’t the alpha moms who would soon appear in town, angling their $800 strollers into the new Starbucks. We dressed in sweats and leggings and oversized Ts. No one worked in publishing, as I did, or trafficked in words. These were women who, had my children been born in an ever so slightly different time or place, I would never have met: a chef, a chef, a caterer/potter. I think they saved my life.

We’d stay until well after darkness fell in the park or else leave to get what might have been the world’s worst pizza (fake cheese, tasteless—but the owner tolerated, with minimal dirty looks, our noise and detritus). One Christmas eve, two of the women, with their husbands, who were, for once, not working in restaurants, converged at our house. (Imagine the pressure of cooking for that many professional chefs—in an act of cowardice, I let my husband do it.) The five kids under six didn’t last long at the table, seized as they were by the kind of anticipatory frenzy that is usually only possible in the very young. I’m sure there was a great mess and that we were dead tired but what I remember are the children shrieking in delight. I also remember the other two women, trained in restaurant kitchens, converging on mine like a SWAT team; I have never seen anyone deep-clean anything so fast.

What happened in the following year was school. Boys played with boys, and girls with girls. We had homework now, and sensible bedtimes. C, the potter, moved farther than walking distance, to a house where she had her own kiln. Little by little, the park nights stopped.

The other three women are now divorced. K left town. T, I see rarely—we wave when we pass. Every so often, though, I hang out with C, the potter whose skinny boy is now a well-built, tall young man. We lost a mutual friend last year, at 50, to cancer, a woman whose son is the same age as ours. C still throws in her kiln-equipped basement—bowls, vases, and dishes that she sells in Manhattan. I’ve bought several of her graceful blue and green serving pieces. But C knows the ones I like best are the $5 seconds—the ones she can’t sell in stores: The glaze has dripped and bubbled, the clay shows in patches, the color, when baked, turned wonderfully strange. Perfection is sometimes the enemy of good. Besides, I like a lucky accident.

— Dawn Raffel


Dawn Raffel’s previous books are two story collections — Further Adventures in the Restless Universe and In the Year of Long Division — and a novel, Carrying the Body. She is the books editor at Reader’s Digest and the editor of The Literarian, the online journal of the Center for Fiction in New York.

“The Rug” was previously published at The Milan Review.




Apr 262012

What begins as a saccharine, over-caffeinated children’s animation whips itself into an orgiastic frenzy of creative impulses gone wrong in This Is It Collective’s “Don’t’ Hug Me I’m Scared.” Directed by Becky Sloan and Joseph Pelling, “Don’t Hug Me” subverts the children’s genre expectations and in its transgressions plays with the perhaps imaginary line between creation and destruction.

The pairing of creation and destruction is commonplace. It has mythic faces in figures like the Hindu goddess Kali who Alice Landry points out “characterizes destruction or letting go of the past to make room for a more purposeful present and future. She stands for the concept of Mother Nature as not only a potent, destructive force but also a force that cleanses away the old to allow room for new, fertile ground.” Separate from art or material objects we might covet or seek to possess, in nature we see no line. We , most of us, don’t look at the sandy beach as the ravaged remains of rocks, the rocks as crushed mountains. What is, just is.

But in the realm of art, we invest in the line between creation and destruction. Something of this seems connected to the nature of creativity. I once saw a documentary about a sculptress – I believe it was Louise Bourgeois – who had an assistant whose major job was to follow the sculptress around and remove the sculptures once she was finished with them. If he did not, she would come back to the piece and nudge it off the table, watch it fall and shatter on the concrete floor, experience pleasure at seeing what she created now destroyed.

But when does the creation of the art end and its destruction begin? How did her assistant know when to remove the art?

This is the question the father in the play “Six Degrees of Separation” also ponders: “I remembered asking my kids’ second-grade teacher: ‘Why are all your students geniuses? Look at the first grade – blotches of green and black. The third grade – camouflage. But your grade, the second grade, Matisses, every one. You’ve made my child a Matisse. Let me study with you. Let me into the second grade. What is your secret?’ ‘I don’t have any secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them.’”

Louise Bourgeois was aware of her place between these two forces, something she sought to understand through many years of therapy. Christopher Turner in The Guardian connects this creative / destructive complementary to Freud: “But, ultimately, Bourgeois felt that analysis had little to offer the artist. ‘The truth is that Freud did nothing for artists, or for the artist’s problem, the artist’s torment,’ Bourgeois wrote in ‘Freud’s Toys,’ as if in frustration with the process to which she submitted for so many years, ‘to be an artist involves some suffering. That’s why artists repeat themselves – because they have no access to a cure.’ Lowenfeld [her therapist] had died four years earlier, ending her analysis but evidently not her pain, which continued to fuel her work. In his essay ‘Dostoevesky and Parricide’ (1926), Freud himself admitted: ‘Before the problem of the creative artist, psychoanalysis must lay down its arms.’ Bourgeois and Freud both see these impulses as irreconcilably something part of the artistic process.

In “Don’t Hug Me,” in the wake of the destruction and mayhem, the narrative voice suggests “Now let’s all agree to never be creative again.” This is surely ironic. Though there can be no greater truth than the film’s assertion that “green is not a creative colour.”

This Is It Collective is a group 13 filmmakers who, in their own words, come “from a background of design and animation . . . and continue to build upon their collective voice that they have developed.” Their shorts have appeared on England’s Channel 4 and received more than 2.5 million views on line for their self-funded projects.

— R. W. Gray

Apr 252012


My father and I used to go to the movies together. I am thinking about the time when I was nine and we saw The Pink Panther Strikes Again. I am thinking about the antics of Peter Sellers as the French detective Clouseau and of his ambushing major domo Cato, played by the actor Burt Kwouk. Pure hilarity ensued each and every time the bungling Chief Inspector returned to his Parisian apartment. Bedecked in a tweed trilby hat and trench coat, the mustachioed Clouseau would enter his flat en garde, stalking the seemingly empty rooms poised for battle with an unseen foe. When at last Cato sprang from the shadows, a veritable tsunami of destruction followed as the two men wrestled for primacy. Bookcases and chandeliers fell. Porcelain teacups crashed and shattered. Their combat moved from room to room, overturning china cabinets, snapping tables in half. In slow-motion action, a bed frame crumpled under the weight of the mock-pugilists, now poised like lovers on top of another. Then, at the height of this pitch-perfect bedlam, with uncanny comedic timing, Clouseau’s telephone rang. All pandemonium ceased. On screen, swirling plaster streamers—the aftermath of pitched battle—fell from the ceiling like snow.

Clouseau stood and collected himself. He pulled his silk robe straight, smoothed over his rubble-laden hair in an attempt to restore dignity, and searched for the ringing phone in the fallout of his once pristine bachelor pad. As he picked up the receiver, its fuse-like cord dangling into the debris, Clouseau snapped his heels and popped to attention. This was the movie’s call to action. And Clouseau, in a voice brimming with exaggerated confidence and a buttery French accent, accepted it. But before the scene shifted, in a climactic masterstroke of comedic genius, the incompetent but charmed detective took a final swat—a death-blow sucker punch—at the unsuspecting Cato, rendering the hapless servant unconscious or worse.


This ritualistic gag between Clouseau and Cato never failed to satisfy. It never failed to elicit anything short of guffawing appreciation from my father and me. In no small way, the film oriented my relationship with my father, a tunneling of inside jokes based on the shared experience of watching a movie together. Those tunnels remain open to this day, shored up like a vast catacomb of oft-quoted lines resurrected again and again across time and distance.

Thomas Wolfe, the lyrical and lanky Southern author, once wrote of seeking “the great, forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven.”  For my father and me, the movies, especially comedies, offered up a private language—an argot of quips, bawdy put-downs and one-liners—which provided us a flickering glimpse into Wolfe’s paradise. Whatever threadbare conversation we’ve sustained over the years, so much of it has been held together by the patchwork of the movies we once watched.  We have recycled laughter and eschewed life’s complex realities in favor of roustabouts’ banter.

“Which of us has looked into his father’s heart?” Wolfe asks in Look Homeward Angel. “Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?” How much easier it is to dwell in laughter than to ponder such questions.

In my mind, it was a Saturday, at the start of those glorious two weeks of winter vacation. The theater sat at the intersection of Southbridge Street and Main Street in downtown Worcester. Constructed in 1904, in the very infancy of moving pictures, the building first opened as a performing arts center in the already decaying heart of the once vibrant mill town. In 1967, two years before I was born, the theater became a Cineplex. For the next thirty years, it showed movies on the silver screen before closing and falling into disrepair, only to be remodeled and reopened as a performance theater again in the last few years. I might have held my father’s hand as we walked through the lobby that day. Surely we stopped for popcorn and Cokes at the snack bar.

Stepping inside the cinema’s massive interior, lined with ornate plaster work and red-velour carpets—hints of a more formal past—it felt like the opening act of a dream. I remember the balcony seats and brass railings, the way the air smelled of butter and boot soles, licorice and lemonade. I remember feeling contained by the place, enveloped by its grand ceiling, its massive chandelier which dimmed as the giant screen slowly emerged from behind the parting ceiling-to-floor red curtains.  It was unlike any movie theater I’ve ever seen since.

In his short story “Behind the Blue Curtain,” Steven Millhauser describes the near-holy ritual of a boy going to see a movie with his father. “On Saturday afternoons in summer my father took me to the movies. All morning long I waited for him to come down from his study, frowning at the bowl of his pipe and slapping the stairs with his slipper-moccasins, as though the glossy dark bowl, the slippers, the waiting itself were a necessary part of my long-drawn-out passage into the realm of the dark.” Though my memory is wintry, and though my father wore Converse instead of moccasins, and smoked cigars instead of a pipe, Millhauser perfectly captures a young boy’s fascination. The occult memories of such a day linger, a spectacle right up there with trips to Fenway Park and Christmas Eve Mass.


That December day, my father told me we were going to visit a priest after the movie. Even then, this struck me as odd. Dad wasn’t a churchgoer. He attended only under pressure, usually from my mother. The original Christmas Catholic, he never spoke about his beliefs. On those rare, rafter-shaking occasions when I saw him in the pews, he looked uncomfortable there, acting in a role he wasn’t meant to play. Why on earth would he be taking me to visit a priest?

After the movie, we emerged from the dark theater to a world transformed. A thick blanket of snow had fallen in the two hours since we entered. White powder covered gray sidewalks and swirled in the air. If there is a more purely magical event in life than that of a sudden snowstorm, I’ve yet to find it.

We walked along Worcester’s busy Main Street and the movie echoed in my head. Clouseau had again defied the odds, defeated arch criminals and laser death rays. He emerged the hero, riding a wave of dumb luck and opportunistic incompetence. His certainty buoyed me as we headed toward the rectory at St. Paul’s Cathedral, as though my life too could be organized along these lines, with laughter, bon temps and predictable outcomes.

It was only a short walk from the theater’s lobby, a block down Main then left on the now-snowy Chatham Street to the cathedral. A layer of snow coated the ground. Steam rose from grates on the street. From a nearby restaurant came the thick smell of frying food, a carnival smell, a delicious odor somewhere between fresh donuts and golden French fries. It made your mouth water, made you want to rush inside and order everything on whatever menu promised such delight. Life seemed, in that blissful moment, archetypically divine.

Dad and I crossed the street, stepping though slush trails from passing cars, and reached the gate of the rectory at St. Paul’s. I must have been thinking of Christmas presents. I must’ve been anticipating the bounty of two weeks off from the trenches of fourth grade. The snow had coated everything by then, an inch at least, maybe more. The snow fell as big flakes and varnished the ground in a heavenly white. That warm, greasy-spoon smell was so strong that my stomach roiled with anticipation.

Then, just before my father rang the rectory doorbell, I saw something that has stayed with me for almost thirty years.

A man was in the alley adjacent to and behind the movie theater. The man’s dark clothes were tattered and layered thick. Everything about his face looked strange somehow, like Clouseau in the wrong costume, his disguise gone grotesquely awry. The man’s hair was wild, long and filthy. The exposed parts of his skin—his face, his fingers, the back of his neck—flushed red from the cold. Snow dusted his shoulders. He stood hunched over, perhaps sheltering himself from the cold, or perhaps the posture was just a result of life on the streets.

I watched him for a while, standing next to my father who saw him too. We were waiting for the priest to buzz us into the rectory. The man moved between one trash can and another, always carefully replacing the lids as he went and bowing, almost as if in prayer. It seemed such an oddly polite gesture, almost gentle. What was he doing? The realization seemed to come slowly, but the entire moment couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds. The man’s soiled hands were rummaging through trash cans. Lifting the silver lids and diving in, he pulled out food wrappers and placed them to his mouth.

He was eating the trash.

The diffuse, savory air suddenly went sour in my stomach. I wanted to run. I wanted to run away from everything, from my father, from the rectory we were about to enter, from the snowy Worcester streets and from this abject misery. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t move.

It was as though I’d been ambushed. As though something sinister had jumped out of the shadows and knocked me down. I wasn’t prepared for it. I hadn’t entered this scene the way Clouseau would have, en garde, ready for the attack. I wasn’t engaged in mock-battle with my faithful manservant. I wasn’t play-fighting on a mirthful stage.  It was as though the script had been rewritten, the farce between Clouseau and Cato had suddenly turned, as though their combat had turned deadly and their play-violence had become macabre. It was as though Clouseau was thrust onto the scene of an actual crime and his incompetence revealed.

In a single flash, the laughter stopped. There would never be a one-liner to make this image go away. In front of me was a man eating trash. It pierced my soul.

Of course I felt none of this then. I felt only a tug, the merest pinprick of sorrow and pity that could just as easily have passed and been forgotten. How could the boy I was that snowy day know that he would carry this feeling for the rest of his life?

The rectory door opened and we stepped inside. The man eating trash disappeared.

As I think back on this day, I wonder if it was real. I wonder if the events really happened the way I’ve reconstructed it. I want to ask my father about it. I want to ask him if he remembers the movie, if he remembers the man on the street. I want to ask him why we went to visit a priest that day thirty-five years ago.

“Do you remember the time we went to see that Pink Panther movie?” I ask. I live on the opposite coast now, but we talk several times a week.  “Do you remember when we went and visited that priest?”

My father laughs.  He has been drinking. I hear the way his words seem to lean in his voice, as if they are holding on to some invisible rail, about to stumble off the edge of a cliff. I can tell within the first eight seconds of any conversation with my father how much he’s had to drink.

“Father Mahan,” he says.  He knows exactly what I’m talking about, even after all this time. “He was a good guy.”

“How did you know him, Dad?” I ask.  I’m careful not to delve into the real questions, into why in the world we would have gone to the cathedral that day when my father never went to church.

“Oh, he was a nice man,” my father says. His voice pitches higher under the strain of memory and the distilled sugarcane vapors of his now-preferred Puerto Rican rum. “He was just a good guy. I’d take you there after the movies and I’d have a drink with him.”

There is something bumbling about my father’s memory, made maudlin by years of hard-drinking and the ravages of time. I only remember going to the rectory that one time, though my dad speaks of it as if it was yesterday. The narrative of his memory often doesn’t match my own but the salience of those experiences remains undiminished.

He tells me that Father Mahan was killed in a car wreck a while back, but we don’t dwell for long in these somber places. We never do.

“I’d take you there sometimes,” he says.  “After the movies. I’d have a few beers with him. He was a nice man.”

My dad laughs, but his laughter suffuses with sadness. “He was such a nice man,” my father says again.

His voice drifts. Rather than digging deeper, rather than pressing about the priest, rather than asking him about the man I saw that day, I steer the conversation back to our script. I won’t allow my father’s boozy sadness to leach into my own loneliness. These are long-standing rules. I realize, somewhat reluctantly, that I am as much responsible for maintaining them as he is. I’m not going to ask him about the man in the alley. I’m not going to reveal myself to my father. Instead, I return to what has sustained us.

“Does your dog bite?” I say, quoting Clouseau.

Our ritual of repeating lines can be maddening at times, but it also acts as a salve. Decades ago, when we watched the movies we now quote, they were happier times, before my parents split up, while my dad was still young and athletic and the future still hopeful. What has passed in the intervening years is simply life: pain, sorrow, estrangement, divorce, death—happy things, too, but far less comedic than what we must have expected that day. What we share now, what we hold like some sort of tentative cease-fire, is a mise-en-scène dialectic. Our conversations are heavily scripted. There is hardly an ad-libbed line anymore.  We have developed an unwavering system of keeping the peace, of never dredging too deep. I work as hard at it as he does, never leading the scene astray. When it gets too heavy, too emotional, when it teeters on the edge, like it is now, we go back to the cue cards.

“That is not my dog,” my father says in perfect Clouseau echolalia.

We’ve got a million of ‘em.


Inside, the rectory was warm and bright. Amidst crucifixes and grim oil paintings of saints and countless depictions of Christ’s all-too familiar suffering, Father Mahan shook my hand and smiled at me. I remember him being a big man, with red hair and a ruddy face. We stayed longer than felt comfortable. I want to say that my dad and the priest shared a beer, but I don’t remember. I doubt they spoke of spiritual matters. My father was certainly not one to open up, especially not to a priest.

How such a triangle ever existed—my faithless father, that Irish priest and the homeless man—remains an utter mystery to me. The day re-forms as but the thinnest shell around a glimpse of a vast and unknowing emptiness. There is a haunted divide between what I feel and what I know. Then, like now, I must have wanted to ask my father about what I’d seen.  I must have wanted to ask the priest. I must have wanted one of those men to put a context on what I’d witnessed, to frame it for me, in a way that reassembled my cracked world. Surely these men knew. Surely they could offer an explanation. If only I had asked. But I was terrified of giving voice to what I felt. I was probably terrified of even feeling it.

On the phone, I don’t ask my father about the man eating trash. I don’t ask him why he visited the priest that day. It seems enough to share the simpler memories, of the movie, of a few lines, though sometimes I wonder what would happen if I could step past my doubt and fear. My failure has always been silence. I feel that deeply.

Decades have passed. Peter Sellers has died and The Pink Panther has been remade with Steve Martin. Father Mahan is dead. My father survived a bout of cancer and heart surgery and has begun to encounter the rocky shoals of an old age. I, too, am a father now, constructing memories with my own kids, wondering what they will take away into their lives. Almost certainly that man rummaging through the garbage cans has died. Almost certainly he is buried in some Potter’s field, or perhaps, on a more hopeful note, he was reclaimed by family, a lost son brought home, and, at last, restored to some dignity in death.

Comedy is festooned with deep truths. We laugh, often to avoid crying. We pepper our consciousness with simple-minded heroes like Chief Inspector Clouseau in order to shut out the grimmer realities of what wanders along at the margins of our lives. It is one way of coping.

My father and I forged a deep bond that day at the movies. We acquired vocabulary for the common language which we continue to speak. Though the gaps between us have widened, the connections remain strong, sustained by revisiting the various films we once watched together. The movies revealed a world at once marvelous and impossible, ridiculous and haunted. In time, as it must, the sublime slapstick gave way to more harrowing realities. The laughter from those memories remains a less lyrical though no-less vital descendant of Wolfe’s homeward looking angel. We are only offered glimpses into the mystery, flickering frames viewed from the balcony of an old theater, but they have to suffice. Soon, the final credits will roll, the lights will come up and it will be time to go. But for now, we enjoy the laughter.

—Richard Farrell

Richard Farrell is  the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories. His work, including fiction, memoir, craft essays, and book reviews, has been published at Hunger Mountain, Numéro Cinq, and A Year in Ink anthology. His essay “Accidental Pugilism” (which first appeared on Numéro Cinq in a slightly different form) has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  He lives in San Diego with his wife and children.

Apr 242012


Gorgeous, mysterious, eerie, disturbing, melancholy — look at the photos and read the essay by Jack Hodgins, eminent Canadian novelist, already a contributor to NC, and wonderful friend. The top three photos were taken by Jack’s son Tyler, the artist who conceived this project. He freezes live-sized ice images of sleeping homeless people and then cracks them out of the mold and trucks them to various locations around Victoria, British Columbia, where he lives. They melt, of course, or they get knocked off their park benches and break — one just disappeared the next day. There are two effects. One is political/social: the images are meant to draw attention to the plight of homeless people; do we really just wish them to disappear as the ice images do? The other effect is aesthetic: the beautiful, transitory, fleeting, evaporating image with the light describing strange and changing patterns through its translucent surface. The great purpose of art is to startle us into seeing something fresh and real. I look at these images and feel that telltale stirring in the back of my neck.

The second set of photos below show the work in progress — Jack Hodgins, the white-haired gent, and his three children, Tyler, the artist (in the brown jacket), Gavin and Shannon, fighting the blue homeless ice man out of his mold in Tyler’s driveway. (Other family members were standing just out of camera range. The photos were taken by Heidi, Tyler’s wife.) Given NC’s propensity to nepotism, this is a quintessential NC moment — the whole family making art together. It warms my ancient, shriveled, dessicated heart no end.

For a full explanation see www.tylerhodgins.ca. The entire project was sponsored by the Art Galley of Greater Victoria.


Once we’d raised the homeless man from the freezer, a thin slick of whitish condensation began immediately to form on his bright blue surface. Like the others, he weighed nearly three hundred pounds, which meant that raising him had required a pair of sturdy straps and a chain pulley attached to the ceiling joists above.

He had frozen in the asleep-on-a-bench position, his knees pulled up, his head resting on his hands, though of course we could see this clearly only after my son had used a sturdy pry bar to free him from the thick rubber mould.

As soon as we’d shifted him onto a plywood stretcher, the four of us carried him  across the driveway and slid him into the back of a borrowed van. Then we drove him down through town to the city’s main park, where we carried him across the grass, past a clump of blooming daffodils, and laid him out on a green slatted bench that looked out over the passing traffic. Those who came close enough would be able to see, in this light, the distinct track of the sleeping bag zipper this person had fallen asleep in.

Perhaps they would also notice that this person’s face is without features. He — or perhaps she — is essentially faceless.

Because the early-spring sun was weak that morning, there was a chance the frozen person would take a few days to melt entirely. Unless, that is, vandals attacked and dismembered him first, as had apparently been done to the previous week’s “Sleeping Bag.” Of course it was possible that someone with a powerful need to sit, or to rest her tired legs, would push him off the end of the bench and onto the long grass, where he would continue the process of melting in two or three separate pieces.

Of course a few passers-by slowed, and muttered amongst themselves, but did not come close, and moved on as soon as they were aware of being noticed. Only a child came up close enough to examine, perhaps to marvel. He did not say what he was thinking. We couldn’t hear what he reported to his grandmother, who remained at a distance. Clearly it was time for us to leave this blue person to sleep in peace and the city residents to observe or ignore as they pleased.

We all knew, though we hadn’t yet said it aloud, that we would find an excuse to drive by and check on “our frozen one,” our own “Sleeping Bag” the following day.

Most of our son’s successful public art works have been large structures of stainless steel, made to last “forever.” In contrast, none of the ice persons set out on a bench each Saturday for thirteen weeks has lasted more than a day or so. One had been moved down to sit in a puddle, gradually turning the muddy water blue; an orange one had almost certainly been tossed into the harbour, and another had disappeared altogether after little more than an hour. (Taken home perhaps? A trophy in the family freezer, a joke, to shock someone sent downstairs to bring up a roast?) That they vanished so quickly  — melting or otherwise — is a reminder of our ability to allow the breathing homeless amongst us to fade rapidly from our awareness and altogether disappear.


The project was sponsored by the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, encouraged by the city’s Coalition to End Homelessness, the Community Social Planning Council, and The Centre for Addiction Research of BC — and permitted by the city council. Ironically, though the city’s permit was for benches only (for safety reasons), the living breathing homeless would be arrested if they were to stretch out to sleep on those same benches, day or night.

Different friends or relatives were invited to help move and install “Sleeping Bag” for each of the thirteen Saturdays. This had been the immediate family’s turn. Apparently each crew had had its own way of reacting to the job. I’m fairly certain that most felt a little as though they were participating in something sombre, very much like a funeral, though there was also good reason for considering this a setting free, a rescue, even a sort of resurrection. And this was spring after all, and Easter weekend – our turn chosen for when all members of the family would be in town.

—Jack Hodgins


Jack Hodgins’s novels and story collections include: Spit Delaney’s Island, The Invention of the World, InnocentCities, Broken Ground,  and  Damage  Done by the Storm, amongst others.  A Passion for Narrative (a guide to writing fiction) is used in classrooms and writing groups across Canada and Australia. His fiction has won the Governor General’s Award, the Canada-Australia Prize, and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, the Butler Book Award amongst others. He has given readings, talks, and workshops in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and several European countries. In 2006 he was awarded both the Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award and the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence in British Columbia. In 2010 the Governor General awarded him an Order of Canada. He and his wife Dianne live in Victoria where, until recently, Hodgins taught the writing of fiction at the University of Victoria. His latest novel, The Master of Happy Endings was published in 2010.  His website: www.jackhodgins.ca

Tyler Hodgins graduated in 1990 from The Victoria College of Art diploma program, and was made an Honorary Associate of the college in 1993. He has exhibited widely, and has work in public and private collections in Canada and the United States. He lives in Victoria with his wife and three children. Tyler’s work is primarily sculptural, and includes video, photography, installation works and public art. Studio based projects focus on themes of home, language, repetition/reproduction, and chance. In 1999 he was a member of the design team for public art on Broad Street in Victoria, and in 2009-2010 was on the steering committee for a new Public Art Policy for the City of Victoria. He has been short listed for numerous public art competitions, and has completed three public commissions, “Rings” for the District of Saanich, “Topography” for Victoria, and “Gateway” for the Gateway Theatre in Richmond. “Glass Half Full” will be completed for The City of Victoria during the summer of 2011. His website: www.tylerhodgins.ca

Apr 222012

“There’ll be no plot,” Andrzej Stasiuk writes in Dukla, “with its promise of a beginning and hope of an end. A plot is the remission of sins, the mother of fools, but it melts away in the rising light of day. Darkness or blindness give things meaning, when the mind has to seek out a way in the shadows, providing its own light.”

Andrzej Stasiuk
Dukla, $13.95
Dalkey Archive, 2011
184 pages
Translated by Bill Johnston

“There’ll be no plot,” Andrzej Stasiuk writes in Dukla, “with its promise of a beginning and hope of an end. A plot is the remission of sins, the mother of fools, but it melts away in the rising light of day. Darkness or blindness give things meaning, when the mind has to seek out a way in the shadows, providing its own light.” Rigorous and striving in his efforts to communicate a personal and complex vision, Stasiuk’s doesn’t dither with plots in the traditional sense. Read slowly and taken intimately, however, Dukla teaches one how to see. With delicate and precise prose, Stasiuk’s narrator seeks a “resurrection” of his experiences, experiences that at once seem universal but all take place on a small stage—in a small town, in a creek bed, in a roadside ditch.  With a narrator drawn to light and with just about every paragraph brimming with glowing descriptions of things high and low, I often thought of Allen Ginsburg’s “Footnote to Howl” while reading Dukla and wondered if its narrator knew it—“Holy… everything is holy.”

One of Poland most acclaimed writers and winner of the NIKE, Poland’s most prestigious literary prize, Andrzej Stasiuk is best known for his travel essays, but he has also written fiction, literary criticism, and journalism. After Stasiuk was dismissed from secondary school, he got involved with a pacifist movement and then spent time in the Polish military, from which he deserted.  For leaving his military post, Stasiuk spent one and a half years in prison, where he wrote his first book The Walls of Hebron (1992), a collection of short stories. Dukla was published in Poland in 1997, and Dalkey Archive Press published Bill Johnson’s translation of it in 2011.

Dukla is broken into three sections.  The first is a ten-page, predawn travelogue across central Poland; second is the title novella; and the third is a collection of eighteen sketches related predominately to nature. Because of its genre-defying mixture and lingering, lyrical prose which edges often into poetry, Dukla reminds me of William Vollmann’s The Atlas or Péter Nádas’s Fire & Knowledge.  The title novella, Dukla, is one part modern travel piece to Dukla, a small Polish resort town on the Hel Peninsula of the Carpathians, describing its sights and its people.  The other parts are cobbled philosophical and metaphysical insights regarding the workings of the mind, time and space; and the narrator’s memoir of childhood experiences in Dukla.  The narrator seems particularly driven to revisit his past—as it relates to a first love he had in Dukla—and to visit the tomb of Maria Amalia, an eighteenth-century ruler of Poland, perhaps because it’s Dukla’s centerpiece of culture.

As in the quotation I open with, Dukla’s makes no effort at standard narrative structure. Stasiuk reconfirms multiple times that “there won’t be any plot.” For Stasiuk common plot is for the middle mind, terror given a name, it “offers protection from madness.”  His writing seeks perception without artificiality, which in turn creates the delight in reading Dukla. He as thrown off the artifices that protects from madness, and in achingly sincere and hyper-lucid prose Stasiuk’s lays bare his thoughts and perceptions.  The guiding structure in Dukla rests with his metaphysical ideas, repeated insights, and a desire to write, notably about light:

I always wanted to write a book about light. I never could find anything else more reminiscent of eternity. I never was able to imagine things that don’t exist. That always seemed a waste of time to me, just like the stubborn search for the Unknown, when only ever ends up looking like an assemblage of old, familiar things in slightly souped-up form. Events and objects either come to an end, or perish, or collapse under their own weight, and if I observe them and describe them it’s only because they refract the brightness, shape it, and give it a form that we’re capable of comprehending.

The narrator never explicitly says that Dukla is the book he “always wanted to write,” but given the attentiveness to light and darkness throughout the book, one can guess that writing about light is what he’s doing.

The tension in Dukla is between the narrator’s imagination and reality.  Reality is very messy for the narrator, which leads him to want to write about light, as he says elsewhere in the book:

For a long time now it’s seemed to me that the only thing worth describing is light, its variations and its eternal nature. Actions interest me to a much lesser degree.  I don’t remember them very well.  They arrange themselves in random sequences that break off without reason and begin without cause, only to snap unexpectedly once again. The mind is skilled at patching up, tacking, putting things in order, but I’m not the smartest guy in the world and I don’t trust the mind, just like a country bumpkin doesn’t trust city folks, because for them everything always arranges itself in neat, deft, illusory series of deductions and proofs.  So, light.

He derides the imagination saying that “the imagination is incapable of inventing anything,” it’s “powerless,” and “doesn’t actually exist.”  Yet there is an unresolved contradiction in the book.  As the narrator lets slip early on: “Light can’t be described, all that can be done is to keep imagining it afresh.”  This tension between Stasiuk perceived reality and imagination textures the book, distorting the text into a fata morgana of the narrator’s devotion to the image—that is, of what he actually sees—and the spiritual imagining of what he experiences.  An example of this is best captured in the novella’s most memorable scene, a moment when “the imagined mingled with the real.” The narrator remembers when he was a child visiting Dukla in the summertime and falling in love with a very tan girl.   At a party he watches her dance and then begins to “feel” himself entering her:

I felt myself entering into her body, not in the banal, sexual sense, but literally slipping into her taut brown skin; my hands filled her arms all the say to the fingertips, which I wiggled as if putting on gloves, and my face moved in the warmth of her smooth insides and became her face, and eventually my tongue became the inside of her tongue, and the same happened with everything else, with the red kingdom of tendons and muscles and white strips of fat, and in the end she was entirely pulled over me, and I was wearing her to the furthest recesses of fingernails and hair.

Another important instant such as this occurs toward the end of the novella, in which the narrator imagines a resurrection of Maria Amalia from her tomb only to have this vision vanish as another woman (a real person, not a phantom) enters the church. These magical, imagined(?) events are then put into juxtaposition with the clear observations of reality, sights which seem remarkable in their fidelity, as in his observation of this family:

In the dark shelter that resembled a ruined arcade there was a family sitting and waiting for their bus. No one was talking.  The children copied the stoical gravity of their parents.  The only thing moving were the little girl’s legs, which swung rhythmically above the ground in their white stockings and shiny red shoes with golden buckles.  In the emptiness of the Sunday afternoon, in the stillness of the bus station, this motion brought to mind the helpless pendulum of a toy clock unable to cope with the burden of time. The girl had slipped her hands under her thighs and was sitting on the. The glistening red weights of her feet were rocking in an absolute vacuum.  Nothing was added or taken away by the swinging.  It was pure movement in an ideal, purified space.  Her mother was staring emptily ahead. A yellow frill bubbled under her dark blue top. The father was leaning forward, his arms resting on his spread knees, and he too was peering into the depths of the day, toward the meeting point of all human gazes that have encountered no resistance on their path.  The woman straightened her hands where they lay in her lap and said, “Sit still.”  The girl froze immediately.  Now all of them were gazing into the navel of the afternoon emptiness, and it was all I could do to tear myself from that motionless slumber.

Dukla’s meditative quality lends itself to quoting large chunks, and I want to share another favorite image from the book.  Here the narrator, now a 36-year-old man, has found the shower he watched the tan girl bathe in twenty years before when he was a child:

I went into the last stall and closed the plastic shower curtain behind me.  Just like before, the sun was shining through the narrow horizontal window. The cracked tiles gleamed like semitransparent gold. It looked as though something lay behind them, that another world began there.  The place smelled of wet wall and of the sadness of somewhere where so many strangers had stood naked….Greasy water had pooled in the drain, with a white flake of soap and a clump of hair.

One of the gifts of Dukla is that it contains multitudes—often times you start to wonder what it is you’re actually reading—and this review could have been easily crafted to highlight its philosophical aspects or its lyricism or the narrator’s obsession with time—“the present is weakest of all, it spoils and disintegrates faster than anything.”  But Stasiuk’s precise use of images and sensory details, his eye for “clumps” of hair in the drain, these specific and well-defined observations for the things in the world, and how he makes them glow with their “own light,” is what seems strongest in the collection. Read slowly, his prose gives measured respect to space and genuine witness.  He allocates as much attention to the image of the tanned girl—who “among the famer’s daughters [of Dukla] this barefoot vagabond looked like the child of kings”—as to the detritus in the public bathroom—“dust, cobwebs, scraps of newspaper, broken glass, disintegrating red oddments of iron, rubble, and dried shit.”  Isn’t what we value almost as interesting as what we throw away? Stasuik thinks so. Holy. Everything is holy.

As with the novella, the eighteen sketches that conclude the book overflow with a preponderance of captivating images. These sketches, however, take a clear-eyed view of nature both its allure and—most often—its moments of cruelty.  Stasiuk always makes note of the kind of light and the time of day or year that illuminates these “landscapes [that] breath death.” In the “Rite of Spring,” Stasiuk narrates the epic struggle of spawning frogs—a sign spring has arrived.  In “Crayfish,” Stasiuk and his friend save crayfish from a drying creek-bed under a sky that had “burned itself a mirror.” Moving them is in vain because later the second stream eventually dries up, too.  And in my favorite of these short pieces, “Green Lacewings,” Stasiuk describes “gold-bugs,” which “in the evening, when we lit candles, these scarcely visible [bugs] would flutter from dark corners, from crevices in the wooden walls, and speed toward the flames, till in a final flare even their outline was lost.”  Taken together these short pieces written in radiant prose tally a zero sum, silhouetting the pointlessness to life, that even we (humans) cannot escape nature. A dusky point of view to be sure, but somehow Stasiuk conveys beauty, whether it’s in the pale hue of an upturn frog’s belly—its choked-up guts “unraveling” from its mouth; or the “luciferous shimmer” of frost. (And now I hear Wordsworth’s admonition about “getting and spending.”)

Dukla is a communion. Throughout the book there is a theme of the narrator trying to enter things, or become part of something, whether it’s ingesting sand or entering the flesh of another person or stumbling into an area where wolves killed a doe.  Over and over we read that the narrator is trying to reconcile and become one with his world through words. As the narrator says while walking though Dukla, “I decided to describe everything.”  The resort town of Dukla and the ditch where the frogs are spawning and the early morning drive through Poland is everything, and “everything suggests that the soul is a fiction of the mind, which is trying to use it to equal the visible world.”  The word dukla in Polish means an exploratory mineshaft, and Stasiuk has gone deep into his own thoughts and memories, and tried to communicate what is real in light and dark. It is a wondrous and mysterious vision, and represents one author’s serious effort to enter his world—hallowed, real and imagined.

–Jason DeYoung


Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Corium, The Los Angles Review, The Fiddleback, and New Orleans Review. His story “The Funeral Bill” will appear in the 2012 edition of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories. He is an assistant fiction editor for upstreet.

Apr 222012

“Rite of Spring” is an essay from Andrzej Stasiuk‘s Dukla, translated from the original Polish by Bill Johnston and published by Dalkey Archive Press late last year (see NC’s review here).  Short, precise and lyrical, “Rite of Spring” captures Stasiuk’s clear-eyed view of his landscapes—brilliantly alive and cruel. As often the case in Dukla, Stasiuk meditates on image, light, and color to produce stunning insights and metaphors. “Rite of Spring” comes near the end of Dukla, and is part of a series of short essays on nature and its dominance.

–Jason DeYoung


Rite of Spring


 When the frogs come out from beneath the earth and set off in search of standing water, it’s a sign that winter has grown weak. White tongues of snow still lie in dark gullies, but their days are numbered. The streams are bursting with water, its animated, mo­notonous sound can be heard even through the walls of the house. Of the four elements, only earth has no voice of its own.

But this was supposed to be about the frogs, not the elements. So then, they crawl out of their hiding places and make their way to ditches and puddles, to stagnant, warmer water. Their bodies look like clods of glistening clay. If the day is sunny the meadow comes to life: dozens, hundreds of frogs moving up the slope. Actually it can barely be seen, for the color of their skin matches the dull hue of last year’s grass. The eye catches only light and motion. They’re still cold and half asleep, so they hop slowly, with long rests between bursts of effort. When the sun is shining at a particular angle, their journey is a series of brief flashes. They light up and go out again like will-o’-the-wisps in the middle of the day. But even now they join into pairs. Frogs’ blood, as everyone knows, has the same tem­perature as the rest of the world, so as they push through patches of shadow on a clear but frost-sprinkled early morning, it’s quite possible that red ice is flowing in their veins. Yet even now, one is seeking another, and they cling to each other in their strange two-headed, eight-legged way that makes Tosia call out: “Look! One frog’s carrying the other one!”


All this is happening in a roadside ditch. The sun warms the water all day long, it’s only in the late afternoon that the leafless willows cast an irregular network of shadows. There’s no outflow here, it’s sheltered from the wind, no stream runs into it, yet the surface of the water is dense with life. It’s like the back of a great snake: it shimmers and coruscates, reflecting the light; the cold gleam slithers, melts away, divides, and does not come to a rest even for a moment.

To begin with it’s only the frogs. Some are dark brown, almost black, with tiger stripes on their pale yellow legs. Others are bigger, the color of dusty fired clay—the ones in the water turn slightly red, take on warmer tones, and you can tell they’re made of flesh.

 Pairs join into foursomes, lone frogs adhere to couples, then there are eights, dozens, frog-balls appear with untold numbers of legs. They look like bizarre animals from the beginning of time, when the familiar forms of life had not yet been established, and the material expression of existence was still an experiment.

Soon frogspawn appears. At first it’s clear as condensed water, then there’s more and more of it and it acquires a luminous dark blue sheen. The water disappears completely, the inert shapeless substance reaches all the way to the bottom of the ditch, and when the frogs are startled by the shadow of an approaching human they dive in clumsily and only with effort. The substance, slimy and mercuric in its weight and its inertness, pushes them back to the surface. All this is accompanied by a sound that recalls an underwater rumbling of the belly.


When everything is over, the sky remains blue across its whole breadth. The surface of the water is equally still. The frogs have left, all that remains is the spawn and the bodies of those that didn’t survive. They float up on their backs, they have white bel­lies, while pale pink filaments of intestine unravel from their mouths like some delicate species of water plant. This is the sign that spring has now arrived.

— Andrzej Stasiuk from his book Dukla, translated by Bill Johnston

Apr 202012

“Why don’t we slice it in half? That’s like the nature of a bagel.”

“I want the whole bagel.”

So goes the romance when singing neighbors become lovers, drawn together by the promise of a buttered bagel in Jamie Travis’s short film “Greed,” one of the Seven Sins films anthology of films produced for Bravo!FACT.

The deliciousness of this short film is in the blend of genres: romantic farce meets musical meets tragic romance, with a little food network love thrown into the mix, which emphasizes how close “greed” is to “gluttony” perhaps.  NC at the Movies featured Travis’s short “The Armoire” a few weeks ago. Though Travis’s familiar aesthetic is here in the set design and the perfect stiff awkwardness of the shots, the tone is light, and the film seems to bounce emotionally: from desire, to hunger, to confusion, to surprise, to loss . . . all lightly, just as the camera lightly waltzes back and forth between their two windows.

In the center of the film, first she then he are featured in close-up shots, addressing the camera directly: we are caught between the lovers, caught between the disagreement over the bagel, caught at the precipice. In terms of montage, this is awkward, this is a harsh collision. This gap we stand in could at another moment be the obstacle to a kiss, but here it is certainty: that she will take all the bagel, and that he will explore other options. But the ending seems more sweet than sad or unrequited. They both seem clearer about what they crave.

The Seven Sins anthology of films were produced and broadcast for Bravo!FACT video on the Bravo network, each of the seven films directed by a different director, a list that also includes Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, Joe Cobden, Anita Doron, Ann Marie Fleming, Bruce McDonald, and Larry Weinstein.

— R. W. Gray

Apr 182012

© Idra Labrie / Perspective

Let me introduce here a ferociously funny French-Canadian novelist François Blais who begins his book Iphigénie en haute-ville with a long digression on the failure of great ideas and the brevity of love (love lasts about three years, he opines, though couples often last longer than love). He follows the first digression with a second on the possibility of engaging in oral sex without knowing  it. You can read the rest. François Blais lives in Grand-Mère on the Saint-Maurice River in the heart of Quebec, the setting for his novels Iphigénie en haute-ville (2006), Vie d’Anne-Sophie Bonenfant (2009), La nuit des mots-vivants (2011) and his most recent, Document 1 (2012). Blais’s characters are strangely appealing yet ineffectual lot, who take a generally dim view of human hopes and history, who find that having a good idea is often a fine substitute for doing anything, and who are often content to putter pointlessly with their Ipads and computer games while reading the odd  Russian novel (consumer culture is fine and dandy, many of these people could have walked out of a Chekhov story). The critic Jean Barbe, writing about Blais’s most recent novel, however, detects a sterner and more mysterious under-story.

Il y a quelque chose de profondément jouissif et de profondément déprimant dans le roman de François Blais. La jouissance tient à un style nerveux, drôle, baveux, ironique dans le meilleur sens du terme.

La déprime tient à ce que les personnages ressemblent étrangement à notre Québec qui ne va nulle part, qui se contente de rêver et accepte son sort en faisant des blagues et en piquant des crises quand le pont est bloqué.

Mais il y a autre chose aussi. Il y a cette chose qui n’est jamais nommée, ce lien qui unit Tess et Jude, cette forme d’amour dont ne sait si elle est charnelle ou fraternelle, ou simplement inscrite dans le ciel, clochards jumeaux et célestes. C’est cet amour, que pas une seule seconde François Blais prend le temps de décrire, qui fait de cet univers romanesque quelque chose de beau. Quelque chose de… grand?

“But there was something else, a thing that is never named, a link that unites Tess and Jude, a form of love, perhaps, that doesn’t know if it is carnal or fraternal or simply written in the sky, celestial twins and tramps. It is this love (for which, François Blais takes not a moment to describe) that makes of this novelistic universe something beautiful. Something…grand? (Forgive my appalling translation.)


Où l’on commence du bon pied par une digression

Certaines idées, bien qu’excellentes dans leurs énoncés, échouent de façon spectaculaire au test de la réalité. Inutile de chercher à savoir pourquoi, c’est comme ça, c’est tout. À l’instar de ces équipes sportives dont on dit qu’elles sont « fortes sur papier » et qui pourtant n’arrivent jamais à remporter le championnat, il manque à ces bonnes idées un je-ne-sais-quoi que le langage humain est impuissant à cerner. Prenons un exemple : le communisme, tiens. En parcourant le Manifeste du parti communiste, ou encore Le capital, on ne peut s’empêcher d’admirer le raisonnement, de reconnaître la justesse des prémisses et l’inéluctabilité des conclusions. D’ailleurs, des gars dix fois plus intelligents que toi et moi réunis (soit dit sans vouloir te froisser, ami lecteur) y ont adhéré sans barguigner. Jean-Paul (celui de La nausée) a même déclaré, sérieux, que « quiconque n’est pas communiste est un chien ! » Aujourd’hui, quand on voit le gâchis qui a résulté de cette belle idée, il pourrait être tentant de prendre des grands airs (toujours facile après coup), de faire des appels anonymes chez Jean-Paul pour lui remettre ça sur le nez… si ce n’était cette certitude qu’en ce moment même, nous sommes en train de nous enticher de bêtises qui nous feront passer, aux yeux des générations futures, pour les ploucs que nous sommes. Pour demeurer dans le rayon des erreurs historiques, on peut également songer au Pepsi Cristal. L’idée était géniale en soi (même goût, même format, mais on voit au travers !), et on peut tenir pour certain que le créatif qui a lancé cette bombe au cours d’une séance de brainstorming a dû recevoir, de la part de ses supérieurs, des accolades à s’en démettre l’épaule et se créer, parmi ses collègues jaloux, des antagonismes vivaces. (En ce moment, il doit noyer sa honte dans l’alcool, si toutefois il a résisté à l’envie de se coucher devant le train.)

Dans la vaste majorité des cas, quand une idée s’avère foireuse dans son application, on finit au bout d’un laps de temps plus ou moins long (plus de soixante-dix ans pour le communisme, à peine soixante-dix jours pour le Pepsi Cristal) par l’abandonner. Certaines idées foireuses ont néanmoins la vie dure. Je ne parle pas ici de la religion ou des Grands Idéaux, qui sont des mauvaises idées utiles, qui remplissent une fonction sociale importante, non, je parle de toutes petites choses, d’institutions, de manies, de coutumes ou de produits auxquels on s’accroche malgré leur flagrante inefficacité, je parle d’une chose aussi banale que le sirop contre la toux, par exemple : a-t-on souvenir d’un seul cas, dans les annales médicales, d’une toux vaincue grâce à une cuillère à soupe de Dimetapp au raisin ? Je parle des poteaux à griffes pour les chats : bien que ne soit pas encore né l’excentrique félin qui délaissera le mobilier pour un poteau à griffes, cet article continue d’être en vente dans toutes les bonnes boutiques. Un autre exemple ? Prends notre système parlementaire. Le principe qui sous-tend cette institution est des plus nobles : donner aux citoyens une tribune où, par le biais de leurs représentants, ils peuvent demander des comptes au gouvernement. Je t’explique le topo : un gars dans l’opposition se lève, pose une question à un ministre, se rassied, son clan l’applaudit, le président donne la parole au ministre interrogé, celui-ci se lève, prononce quelques mots, se rassied, son clan l’applaudit, le gars qui avait posé la question a droit à deux questions complémentaires, et puis on passe à un autre sujet. Le hic c’est que, depuis que ce système est implanté, jamais au grand jamais un ministre n’a réellement répondu à une seule question. On louvoie, on s’en sort par une pirouette rhétorique, on fait semblant de ne pas comprendre, on temporise, on joue sur les mots, mais jamais on ne répond. Malgré que cette attitude soit la règle, malgré que la scène se répète jour après jour, les « amis d’en face » (ceux qui posent les questions) trouvent encore la force de s’indigner, de prendre monsieur le président à témoin, de faire la grimace devant tant de mauvaise foi, tout en feignant d’oublier qu’eux-mêmes, durant leur séjour de l’autre côté de la salle, se sont bien gardés de répondre à quelque question que ce soit. Nonobstant la désespérante inutilité de l’exercice, la saison parlementaire venue, tous les députés, même ceux des régions éloignées, se font un devoir de se présenter à l’Assemblée nationale, tirés à quatre épingles, et s’évertuent jour après jour à poser des questions qui resteront sans réponse.

Pas convaincu ? En veux-tu encore d’autres, de ces idées bancales ? Je t’en épargne la liste exhaustive parce qu’on y serait encore demain matin, mais en voici toujours quelques-unes, que je te jette en vrac, et dis-moi sans rire que jamais, à un moment ou à un autre de ta vie, tu ne t’es laissé séduire par l’une d’elles : la loterie, les films en trois dimensions, le Ab-Buster, l’homéopathie, le Oui-Ja, le multiculturalisme, les aphrodisiaques, les manifestations, les pétitions, les colliers « glow in the dark » vendus à la Saint-Jean-Baptiste, les lunettes pour voir au travers du linge, la démocratie, la vente pyramidale, les pick-up lines, l’huile à mouches, les trucs pour perdre du poids, les trucs pour rester jeune, les chaînes de lettres, les neuvaines, la cartomancie, apprendre en s’amusant, les agences de rencontre, les porte-bonheur, les agrandisseurs de pénis, la quadrature du cercle, le mouvement perpétuel, capturer un roadrunner avec des patins à roulettes munis de réacteurs, etc. Autant de mauvais plans, d’arnaques éhontées, autant de roues carrées et de chaises à trois pattes qui continuent pourtant d’être utilisées quotidiennement par des tas de gens sains d’esprit.

Le couple est un autre de ces trucs qui ratent immanquablement. Une autre de ces erreurs navrantes que l’humanité prend plaisir à répéter. Il faut dire que le programme est alléchant : sexe gratis à volonté, sécurité affective garantie, puissance économique accrue, bouc émissaire à portée de main pour toutes nos faillites… on se dit qu’il faudrait être fou pour ne pas se ruer sur un tel produit, pour ne pas mettre tous ses œufs dans ce panier-là, alors on se déniche une quelconque âme sœur, on fait semblant d’être intéressant, on fait semblant d’être intéressé, et hop ! le tour est joué : nous voilà en couple. Au début, il faut l’admettre, l’idée tient ses promesses, rembourse avec intérêts tous les espoirs qu’on y avait investis. Au début, c’est trop beau pour être vrai : il y a cette fille, là, dans le salon, qui nous laisse sans trop rouspéter toucher à ses seins, qui rit de bon cœur de toutes nos farces plates, qui flatte notre virilité en nous demandant d’ouvrir le pot de cornichons ou de programmer le magnétoscope, qui nous gronde gentiment lorsqu’on sort sans petite laine (comme maman faisait). On savoure chaque moment passé en sa compagnie en oubliant délibérément que tôt ou tard (plus tôt que tard, en fait) arrivera le jour où l’on aura envie de toucher tous les seins du monde hormis les siens, où nos réparties les plus spirituelles ne provoqueront, dans le meilleur des cas, qu’un haussement d’épaules exaspéré, où elle bafouera notre virilité en nous comparant à quelque connaissance ayant mieux réussi dans la vie et en nous demandant de pisser assis si on n’est pas capable de viser comme du monde (comme maman faisait). On a beau partir avec les meilleures intentions, on en arrive, fatalement, à s’enliser dans le mensonge, l’ennui et la compromission. Et plus on se débat, plus on s’enlise. On a beau y mettre du sien, vouloir repartir sur des bases neuves, nourrir le dialogue, consulter des spécialistes, mettre du piquant dans notre vie sexuelle, se réserver du temps à deux, lire Les hommes viennent de Mars, les femmes viennent de Vénus, faire un enfant pour changer le mal de place, rien n’y fait, notre couple part en eau de boudin sans qu’on y puisse grand-chose. Ce naufrage nous place devant l’alternative suivante : ou bien on coule avec le navire, vaillamment, ou bien on fuit sur un canot de sauvetage dans l’espoir d’être recueilli sur un autre bateau. Avant la cinquantaine, la plupart des gens choisissent la seconde option. Ils se disent, imperméables à l’expérience : « La prochaine fois va être la bonne. » Car malgré que le couple soit le lieu de toutes les déceptions, de toutes les frustrations, on ne veut pas en démordre, on s’acharne à se remettre en selle sitôt désarçonné, tout ça à cause d’un atavisme sournois qui nous pousse, veut, veut pas, à enchaîner notre destinée à celle d’un membre du sexe opposé dans le but (difficilement défendable) d’accroître le nombre d’humains. Chez les mammifères, la durée de vie moyenne du couple équivaut à peu près au temps qu’il faut pour élever une portée. Après ce laps de temps, l’union perd sa justification biologique. Étant donné que les petits humains mettent un temps fou à atteindre l’autonomie, la longévité du couple est particulièrement élevée chez cette espèce. Le couple humain, toutes cultures confondues, dure en moyenne de quatre à cinq ans (un auteur connu affirme que l’amour dure trois ans, mais il n’y a pas de contradiction : tout le monde sait que le couple dure toujours plus longtemps que l’amour), quatre à cinq ans, donc, ce qui correspond à la fin de la petite enfance, l’âge auquel l’enfant commence à se socialiser, où la présence constante de ses deux parents n’est plus nécessaire. Passé ce cap, l’atavisme qui vous avait réunis se met à faire des pieds et des mains pour tout gâcher, pour que tu ailles, toi, répandre ta semence aux quatre vents et que du coup tu libères la place afin que d’autres viennent répandre la leur dans la matrice que tu accaparais. Parce que c’est bien beau les promesses d’amour éternel, les photos du voyage de noces, l’hypothèque à payer, mais ce n’est pas tout, ça, il faut (et cela l’emporte sur le reste) que le bassin génétique soit bien brassé. Si tout le monde était aussi stupidement monogame que Charles Ingalls, l’humanité serait une race blafarde, débile et valétudinaire, depuis longtemps supplantée en tant qu’espèce dominante par les pingouins ou les bichons maltais.

Bref, bien qu’il soit voué à l’échec, bien qu’il soit condamné à moyen terme, le couple continue de faire des millions d’adeptes partout dans le monde (au grand dam de l’inventeur du Pepsi Cristal qui doit en crever de jalousie). L’histoire que nous nous proposons de raconter dans ces pages est celle d’un couple. En conséquence, elle finira mal. Tout ce long préambule pour que tu te résignes à cette idée, pour que tu ne te sentes pas floué à la fin, que tu ne maudisses pas l’auteur qui, d’ailleurs, est plutôt un chroniqueur servile puisqu’elle est, cette histoire, authentique à 100 %. Toute ressemblance avec des personnes vivantes ou décédées serait dans l’ordre des choses, je le jure sur la Bible, sur le Coran, sur les Védas, sur le bouquin que tu veux. C’est l’histoire d’un couple, donc. Le garçon s’appelle Érostrate, la fille s’appelle Iphigénie. Ça se passe à Québec.

Où l’on digresse encore un brin. Où l’on voit qu’il est possible de se livrer à des fellations sans le savoir.
Où l’on se permet d’écornifler dans la tête d’Érostrate

Tout le monde connaît cette histoire, servant à illustrer l’idée que des causes infimes peuvent parfois produire de grands effets, du papillon qui, d’un battement d’ailes, provoque un séisme à l’autre bout du monde. C’est vendeur comme histoire, ça fait rêver, ça donne aux minus, aux pauvres, aux pas beaux, bref à tous les infimes, l’espoir de faire un jour trembler le monde sur ses fondations, pour autant qu’ils consentent à oublier que, dans l’immense majorité des cas, les battements d’ailes de papillons n’ont d’autre effet que celui de maintenir les papillons en l’air. Toutefois, il arrive bel et bien qu’une série de petits riens résulte en des événements dont les conséquences sur notre vie se comparent à celles d’une catastrophe naturelle, des événements conditionnels à tellement de si, fruits d’un enchaînement de circonstances si précaire que, même devant le fait accompli, l’on a un peu de mal à y croire. Par exemple, si Érostrate ne s’était pas laissé convaincre ce soir-là par son frère et les amis de son frère de les accompagner à l’Arlequin, il ne se serait pas enivré au point d’être malade ; s’il ne s’était pas enivré à ce point, il ne se serait pas retrouvé misérablement accroupi devant la cuvette, dans les toilettes des gars, à rendre le contenu de son estomac ; s’il ne s’était pas trouvé dans cette position, il n’aurait pas remarqué ce graffiti à la hauteur de ses yeux, écrit au feutre sur le ciment nu : Iphigénie suce des grosses queues, suivi d’un numéro de téléphone ; s’il n’avait pas été dans un état d’esprit un peu bizarre à ce moment-là, il ne se serait pas amusé, pendant qu’il hoquetait un filet de bile, à mémoriser ce numéro ; si ce numéro s’était effacé de sa mémoire au bout de quelques minutes, comme il aurait été naturel, au lieu de s’y incruster, il n’aurait pas pu le composer, une semaine plus tard, vers deux heures du matin, alors qu’il se sentait un peu seul. Si l’un des maillons de cette fragile chaîne d’événements s’était rompu, Iphigénie et Érostrate ne se seraient jamais connus et moi, au lieu de raconter leur histoire, je serais déjà attelé à la rédaction de ma monographie sur la place de la chèvre dans la tradition orale berbère, ouvrage qui rendra mon nom immortel. Mais tous ces petits riens s’étant enchaînés, l’improbable lien s’étant formé, j’ajourne de bonne grâce la mise en chantier de mon chef-d’œuvre pour te narrer ce fait vécu. Avant toute chose, quelques mots sur nos deux héros.

Précisons tout d’abord, au sujet d’Iphigénie, que le graffiti la concernant dans les toilettes des gars de l’Arlequin n’était que grossière diffamation. Rédigé dans un esprit de basse vengeance par un prétendant éconduit auquel elle avait cessé de songer dès la seconde où elle l’avait expulsé de sa vie, le graffiti datait déjà de plus d’un an lorsqu’elle en apprit l’existence de la bouche d’Érostrate. (Sans cela, il y a fort à parier qu’elle n’en aurait jamais entendu parler, car personne, à ma connaissance, même le plus poisson parmi les poissons, même le plus débile des amateurs de lutte, même le crétin aigu incapable de prendre une décision sans consulter Jojo Savard, personne n’est suffisamment naïf pour s’imaginer qu’il existe réellement des filles qui sucent les queues des inconnus, comme ça, pour leur plaisir, et qui par-dessus le marché se font de la pub dans les toilettes.) Mais qu’était-elle donc, alors, cette Iphigénie, si elle n’était point suceuse en série ? Iphigénie était une belle jeune fille (mais ça tu l’avais déjà induit puisque aucun auteur, pas même un gâcheur de papier de sixième ordre dans mon genre, ne perdrait son temps à raconter l’histoire d’une fille moche), une belle jeune fille venue de la forêt mauricienne pour poursuivre des études supérieures à l’Université Laval. En fait, non seulement ne suçait-elle point de queues, grosses ou pas, mais, dans le courant d’une journée normale, elle ne desserrait les lèvres que dans les circonstances suivantes :

• pour s’alimenter ;
• pour répondre « présente » au début de chaque cours ;
• pour demander au concierge de lui déverrouiller la porte du labo ;
• pour dire merci au gars du dépanneur quand il lui rendait sa monnaie ;
• pour dire bonjour à sa propriétaire quand elle la croisait dans l’escalier ;
• pour parler à sa mère (qui téléphonait tous les soirs), lui dire oui maman tout va bien, je m’amuse, j’ai des tas  d’amis, je suis  dans le coup, la vie est belle.

Et puis c’est tout. Ce n’était pas qu’elle fût particulièrement timide, du genre à marcher les épaules voûtées, à avoir l’air de vouloir se dissoudre dans le néant ou se réfugier entre le prélart et le plancher dès qu’on lui adressait la parole, pas du tout. Simplement, les gens ne l’intéressaient pas. Elle avait donné au monde une chance honnête de se faire valoir, lui avait laissé le temps de faire son petit numéro, avait observé les humains un bon moment, sans préjugé, ne les avait pas trouvés de son goût et avait décidé, en fin de compte, de ne point les fréquenter. Ce dédain n’était bien sûr pas absolu car, que cela nous plaise ou non, le besoin d’entretenir des rapports avec autrui est trop impérieux pour être totalement éludé. Aussi Iphigénie écoutait-elle avec plaisir le comte Léon lui raconter les amours tumultueuses d’Anna et de Vronski ; elle compatissait avec Fiodor Mikhaïlovitch aux déboires du prince Mychkine ; elle riait de bon cœur avec Nikolaï du désarroi de ce brave fonctionnaire qui croise son propre nez dans la rue ; elle subissait avec Anton la pesante mélancolie de la steppe ; elle accompagnait Ivan partout où il daignait l’inviter, dans les marais à chasser la pintade ou dans les salons de Paris pour rencontrer George Sand et Flaubert. En gros, pour qu’elle condescende à vous prêter l’oreille, vous deviez être mort, russe et génial, ce qui n’est malheureusement pas à la portée de tous. J’ai dit plus haut qu’Iphigénie vivait à Québec ; en fait, elle y vivait si peu que c’est presque un mensonge de le dire. Elle y occupait un espace loué à son nom, y étudiait pour devenir accordeuse de pianos ou physicienne nucléaire, quelque chose comme ça, mais si tu lui avais demandé, par exemple, de t’indiquer le chemin du Dagobert ou du Maurice, tu lui en aurais bouché un coin. Pendant les cinq ans qu’elle passa dans cette ville, elle ne sut jamais de quoi avait l’air la Grande Allée, elle qui pourtant avait arpenté à s’en user les semelles la perspective Nevski, qui pouvait en décrire la moindre échoppe et connaissait le nom de chacun des ponts enjambant la Neva. Elle ne s’était jamais aventurée jusqu’au Château Frontenac, mais elle avait ses entrées dans le Palais d’hiver des tsars. Elle ignorait le nom du député qui défendait ses intérêts dans ce parlement situé à quinze minutes de chez elle, mais elle pouvait discourir pendant des heures sur chacun des autocrates à avoir régné sur la Sainte Russie, depuis Ivan le Terrible jusqu’à ce brave Nicolas II. Elle n’avait jamais flâné, par un bel après-midi d’été, sur les Plaines d’Abraham et ne connaissait que sommairement les circonstances de l’escarmouche qui s’y était déroulée, elle qui pourtant avait assisté, en compagnie d’Alexandre Ier, à la prise de Moscou par les soldats de Napoléon et à la débandade du tyran français, vaincu par le climat et par l’immensité de cette terre sauvage.

D’Érostrate aussi on pouvait dire qu’il n’était parmi nous que techniquement, qu’il traversait la vie avec un visa de tourisme. Dès les premières pages du Mythe de Sisyphe, Camus, qui ne rechigne pas à devenir lourd lorsque son propos l’exige, pose le suicide comme étant le seul problème philosophique réellement important. Après avoir constaté l’absurdité du monde, l’Homme, nous dit Albert, est aux prises avec l’alternative suivante : ou bien il refuse ce monde qui n’a pas de sens (et donc se suicide) ou bien il demeure vivant et doit alors trouver la force de suppléer à ce vide en attribuant arbitrairement à l’existence un sens qui n’existe pas intrinsèquement. Mais pour son malheur, au contraire de « l’Homme » camusien, faisant son frais avec son H majuscule, Érostrate était, d’une part, dépourvu de la force morale nécessaire pour s’inventer un destin malgré l’absurdité du monde et, d’autre part, trop pissou pour se faire sauter le caisson. Pas assez niaiseux pour accepter le deal mais pas assez intense pour se crisser en bas du pont. Il vivait assis entre deux chaises, tel un aristocrate qui, invité à une fête populaire, fait acte de présence mais refuse de compromettre sa dignité en dansant la bourrée. Dans ces conditions, l’indifférence était tout ce qu’il pouvait s’offrir. La vie n’a pas de sens ? Big fucking deal ! Dans les débuts de sa vie intellectuelle, il avait bien regimbé un peu. Par choix esthétique plus que philosophique (le tragique faisant toujours chic à l’adolescence), il avait versé pendant quelques années des larmes de crocodile sur cette humanité cruelle, mesquine et apathique, avait théâtralement hurlé son refus d’entrer dans le moule, avait jeté avec frénésie son mal de vivre dans d’ineptes poésies puis, sa nature profonde ayant vite repris ses droits, les larmes de crocodile avaient fait place à un sourire moqueur (plutôt intérieur qu’apparent) qu’il promenait sur la multitude s’agitant autour de lui, lui petit baveux oisif, immobile au milieu de la mêlée, jouissant du spectacle de ces gens pressés par l’ambition et par leurs bas-ventres, de ces gens feignant d’aller quelque part, feignant d’ignorer qu’ils allaient mourir. Solution facile en apparence, ce parti pris de se moquer de tout était parfois difficile à tenir. Par exemple, Érostrate professait comme il se doit une indifférence parfaite à l’égard de l’opinion des gens, mais il aimait bien rendre cette indifférence aussi ostentatoire que possible. Il distribuait son estime et son affection au compte-gouttes, mais il s’efforçait toujours d’avoir la monnaie exacte à l’épicerie pour que la petite madame à la caisse l’aime davantage. Lorsque, en sondant son âme, il se retrouvait, comme ça, nez à nez avec une contradiction un peu trop flagrante, il arrangeait le coup avec un brin de mauvaise foi, il regardait ailleurs et tout était dit. De toute façon, sonder son âme était une activité à laquelle il se livrait rarement. Se sachant insignifiant, il ne voyait pas pourquoi il se serait imposé l’effort de chercher à faire sa propre connaissance. Connais-toi toi-même, le slogan allait bien à Socrate, lui qui manifestement gagnait à être connu, mais pour un gars comme Érostrate (et des milliards d’autres), une personnalité conventionnelle, une façade bâclée pour les besoins de la cause faisait très bien l’affaire. À son avis, il fallait être ridiculement amoureux de sa propre personne pour se livrer de manière intensive à l’introspection.

Moi, par contre, qui, en tant que narrateur omniscient, vois tout, entends tout, sais tout (comme Tic l’écureuil, t’sais ?), je me dois au moins de faire une petite ronde de reconnaissance dans les abysses de son subconscient, histoire de mettre certaines choses au clair. Par exemple, je peux affirmer sans aucun risque d’erreur que ce refus de prendre part à l’action, cette prétendue indifférence professée par notre héros n’était au fond que l’effet de sa dignité le poussant à se rebiffer à l’idée de toucher un plat dont la portion était trop chichement rationnée, à dédaigner une richesse dont il n’avait que l’usufruit. Ne disposer, pour étancher sa soif d’expériences, que d’un seul corps et d’un seul petit bout de siècle équivalait à ses yeux à vouloir calmer un appétit d’ogre avec une biscotte et une branche de céleri. À quoi bon vivre si ce n’est que pour un temps ? À quoi bon vouloir être quelque chose si on ne peut pas être tout ? Si on ne peut pas être à la fois Napoléon et Wellington ; à la fois calife et mendiant ; à la fois duchesse de Bourgogne et gérant de station-service à Mechanic Falls, New Hampshire ; à la fois Bugs Bunny et Yosemite Sam ; à la fois Cortés et Montezuma ; à la fois mère Teresa et Jack l’Éventreur ; à la fois Robespierre et Louis XVI ; à la fois Shakespeare et Danielle Steel ; à la fois Al Capone et Eliot Ness ; à la fois Joseph Merrick et Grace Kelly ; à la fois Mahomet et le Christ ? Si on ne pouvait être tout cela, si on n’était, en tout et pour tout, qu’Érostrate, domicilié rue de la Reine, dans le quartier Saint-Roch de la ville de Québec (Canada), bref un mortel quelconque dans une ville quelconque à une époque quelconque, si cela constituait tout le karma qu’on pouvait se payer, alors aussi bien s’en passer. Cette vie à laquelle il ne voulait pas toucher, Érostrate la fuyait dans les livres. Cet autre point commun avec Iphigénie peut donner à penser qu’ils étaient, d’emblée, faits pour s’entendre. Pourtant, l’affaire était moins dans le sac qu’on ne pourrait le croire. Iphigénie, nous l’avons vu, avait depuis longtemps décidé qu’elle n’était faite pour s’entendre avec personne. Quant à Érostrate, bien que sa frivolité lui donnât envie de s’entendre avec tout être doté d’une belle poitrine et d’un teint frais, sa timidité lui sciait les jambes dès qu’il se retrouvait à moins de dix mètres d’une telle créature. Mais comme j’ai annoncé, d’entrée de jeu, que cette histoire serait celle d’un couple, il faut bien que ces obstacles ne soient pas insurmontables. Avant de voir de quelle manière ils seront surmontés, je termine ce chapitre en jetant, pêle-mêle, quelques détails biographiques supplémentaires sur nos deux héros. Iphigénie n’avait strictement aucune opinion politique ; Érostrate, de son côté, était le plus à gauche possible du spectre, car on peut toujours compter sur les gauchistes pour siphonner les riches et entretenir les paresseux et les parasites dans son genre. Érostrate affirmait ne croire en rien, mais il ne pouvait s’empêcher de maudire le ciel chaque fois que ses numéros ne sortaient pas à la loterie ; Iphigénie affirmait ne croire en rien, mais elle ne pouvait s’empêcher, sitôt la lumière fermée, de franchir d’un bond la distance qui la séparait de son lit. Sous les tortures les plus cruelles, jamais Iphigénie n’aurait consenti à avouer cette vérité toute simple : qu’elle croyait (et espérait) en l’amour ; sous la vague menace des plus légers sévices, Érostrate aurait avoué tout ce que tu veux. Et puis quoi d’autre ? Des tas de choses encore, mais je pense que la meilleure façon pour toi de te faire une idée au sujet de ces deux-là, c’est encore de les regarder aller. Alors, je me la ferme et je leur laisse la place.

—François Blais


François Blais est né en 1973, à Grand-Mère. Il habite depuis une dizaine d’années à Québec, où il exerce le métier de traducteur. Depuis 2006, il a publié six romans, dont cinq à L’instant même.

Apr 172012



Levi Nicholat is a Saskatoon artist who works in acrylic and oil, painting vibrant playful scenes dominated by figures and suggestive of narratives. Like two of his influences, David Hockney and Ron Kitaj, he “combines figuration with modernist abstraction.” Asked if his work references other artists, Levi says, “You look at art history in a critical way…you have to think about that context…With the internet, the availability of the images and the history is all there. You just have to digest that and then it does spill out. You still have to do something that’s yours, or unique, or potentially new, but it can’t not reference what’s come before.”

Levi describes his artistic process: “My work uses the human figure to re-construct and re-imagine personal narratives. My approach involves repeated layering, re-working and editing. The paintings are allowed to preserve the record of my process, the creation and destruction, appearance and disappearance, suggestion and denial. Bodies rendered on the canvas are repeatedly edited, moved, repainted until the original representations are transfigured into fragmented, abstracted forms. Through this self-conscious practice of showing and covering up, the process of painting becomes a metaphor relating to issues of queer identity.”

“This kind of editing is something that I’ve maybe always done, but it was to clean up [the work], but then to finish it in a particular way, and to erase the evidence of the editing…I came to realize that those kind of in-between states where something’s over-painted but there’s still a trace of what …[was] there, that’s actually when it’s most interesting—to see the thought processes of what’s going on in the making of the work, instead of just what the imagery stands for on its own.”

—Kim Aubrey


Family Farm, acrylic on canvas 48 in. x 60 in., 2008


Trinity, oil on canvas, 48 in. x 60 in., 2009


Untitled, acrylic, paper and tape on canvas, 48 in. x 60 in., 2011


Bathers, acrylic on canvas, 72 in. x 120 in. (2 panels), 2011


tention, acrylic and paper on canvas, 60 in. x 96 in. (2 panels), 2011


de-rection, acrylic on canvas, 72 in. x 96 in., 2011


campfire, acrylic on canvas, 72 in. x 96 in., 2011


untitled, acrylic on canvas, 48 in. x 96 in., 2012


Levi Nicholat was born in Saskatoon in 1984. He earned a BFA and an MFA in Visual Art from the University of Saskatchewan, and is currently at work on new paintings in his backyard studio.


Apr 152012

Diane Lefer’s latest Letter from Bolivia is a rare treat, a look at one of the world’s great carnivals in Oruro. I mean here carnival in the old sense, the ancient sense, the Bakhtinian sense of the world turned upside-down for a moment, the modern world, the day-to-day, briefly, obliterated, when work stops and the dancing begins and the lords bow low to the workers, and shape-changers and mythic beings walk in the daylight. What you have to imagine as you read through this piece and look at the pictures is that you are not so far removed from this world as you think, that scratch a North American and you’ll find someone whose ancestors, four, five, eight, ten generations back, still danced at carnival, still harboured some vestigial belief in the forest gods (of Europe, of the East, of Africa). Part of what it means to be modern is to feel nostalgia for the ancient oral (not the primitive but the pre-literate, before the invention of writing) culture we have left behind. Such nostalgia is paradoxical; we think we’re better, but, goodness, that old world looks so rich and exciting and, yes, fun. (I can hear Diane saying, yes, yes, but stop being so intellectual about it.)



Oruro is an old mining town on the altiplano about four hours from Cochabamba and home to one of the most famous Carnaval celebrations in the world. My friend Jimena’s musical group–which you last encountered during the raunchy celebration at a Cochabamba restaurant–was invited to participate in the Saturday night procession.

Carnaval in Oruro is not a dancing-in-the-streets affair. Instead, thousands of participants in elaborate costumes dance and parade to honor La Virgen de la Candelaria, more commonly known as Our Lady of the Mineshaft as miners trust her to protect them underground.

“They dance for faith, only for faith,” explained Jimena’s father who was born in Oruro and whom I accompanied to the church where he knelt a long time in prayer.

Jimena, who—in addition to her teaching degree and artistic work—has a degree in theology and is a contributor to a weekly radio show exploring religion from a woman’s point of view, dismissed the idea. “A lot of people dance because they like to dance,” she said and she sees nothing wrong with that. (She also loves pasta.)


Streets in the center of town are lined with stalls where dancers can get false braids and makeup. Among them, Jimena’s aunt, getting ready here:


And, later, dancing with her group, waving at the camera.



We were made welcome at the family home where the ground level patio is her uncle’s mechanic’s workshop, her cousin’s project for his engineering degree hangs over the dining table (and makes my friend Tami look intelligent indeed)


and the guest room is up a ramshackle exterior staircase of wooden planks, not all of which were all that sturdy or even present.

Jimena and Tami went off to find the musicians they would be joining. Jimena’s grandmother held places in the spectator bleachers for the family and for me.


All day Saturday and until late at night the Carnaval groups take over the city.


Kids spray each other with foam. Vendors sell snacks and drinks.


And plastic raincoats. After all, it’s the rainy season. (Though we were lucky and the weather threatened but stayed fine.)


I lasted only until about 1:00 AM. Later that night, needing the toilet which was located at the back of the patio. I slowly negotiated the steps in the dark. I had almost reached my destination when the guard dog came at me. I flew back upstairs condemned to hold it in till morning.

My friends didn’t return till I was already on my way out again. At dawn, after drinking and carousing, they went to El Alba, when people cram themselves into the church for morning service and where, alas, the crowded conditions are ideal for pickpockets. One friend lost her cell phone; another lost her camera and her wallet.

The processions begin again. Early in the morning, Alejandra is ready to leave our room wearing her folkloric dress.


Some take the stairs up the steep hill en route to the church:


Inside, one of the side altars is cut out of the rock, giving the appearance of the entrance to a mine.



More than 50 groups joined the procession, each with its own brass band, some of them 300 pieces strong.

Some of the costumes celebrate the many different indigenous cultures of Bolivia, from Amazon to altiplano. No getting away from cell phones.

Under the leadership of the socialist president Evo Morales, Bolivia changed its name from the Republic of Bolivia to the Plurinational State of Bolivia, making the multicultural nature of the country (and its more than 50 different ethnic groups) official.


The dancers seen below are called Tinkus. Tinku was once bloody ritual combat. No one gets hurt in the dance.



“Saya” is the music of the Afro-Bolivian community. To some, these Saya dancers are merely amusing and some may object to the blackface, but the purpose of the dance is to commemorate and honor the Africans who were brought to work as slaves in the silver mines of Potosí, enriching the Spanish Empire.



Most of the women dancers are young and pretty and wear short skirts.


.But Carnaval is about community, not about looking like a model.


Diabladas–dancers dressed as devils–appear with flashing eyes and some with actual flames erupting from their headdresses.


I missed the culmination of the event on Monday when, I’m told, every year the devils are defeated by the angels.


One might suggest that Our Lady of the Mineshaft is actually Pachamama, the indigenous divinity we would translate at Mother Earth. Satan? That’s Tío (Uncle) Supay, the Lord of the Underworld. She offers the fruits of the earth. He sends earthquake and volcano and destroys those who venture into his realm.

But what do I know? I was there so briefly and my questions didn’t always get clear answers. For example, I acquired this figure made of tin from a vendor of indigenous charms.

She was also selling items used in the Coa rite, including preserved llama fetuses and ritual herbs, incense, and sugar figures showing what the supplicant wants: e.g., livestock, a house, US dollars.

Sacrificial objects. Notice Star Wars paraphernalia in the background.

The coa is a sort of hoe with a sharp point traditional to indigenous agriculture. Before the ground is broken for planting, it’s important to ask Pachamama’s favor.

As for the tin charm, I sort of understand you’re supposed to bury it wishing for prosperity, but when I asked a friend what it’s called and what you do with it, she answered, “I’m a Catholic. I wouldn’t know anything about that,” before she proceeded to make an offering to Pachamama.

So please enjoy the photos and take my commentary with a grain of salt! And maybe you can tell me why some of the devils feature crosses on their attire.

Or Our Lady.






—Diane Lefer


Diane Lefer is a playwright, author, and activist whose recent books include The Blessing Next to the Wound: A Story of Art, Activism, and Transformation, co-authored with Colombian exile Hector Aristizábal and recommended by Amnesty International as a book to read during Banned Books Week; and the short-story collection, California Transit, awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize. Her NYC-noir, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, is forthcoming in May from Rainstorm Books and was described by Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry as “sifting the ashes of America’s endless class warfare.” Her works for the stage have been produced in LA, NYC, Chicago and points in-between and include Nightwind, also in collaboration with Aristizábal, which has been performed all over the US and the world, including human rights organizations based in Afghanistan and Colombia. Diane has led arts- and games-based writing workshops to boost reading and writing skills and promote social justice in the US and in South America. She is a frequent contributor to CounterPunch, LA Progressive, New Clear Vision, ¡Presente!, and Truthout. Diane’s previous contributions to NC include “What it’s like living here [Los Angeles],” “Writing Instruction as a Social Practice: or What I Did (and Learned) in Barrancabermeja,” a short story “The Tangerine Quandary,” a play God’s Flea, and an earlier “Letter from Bolivia: Days and Nights in Cochabamba.”

Apr 142012

Lindsay Norville was out with her family for Chinese food one night when she snapped open a fortune cookie and read the words “One day you will write a book.” She says she knew she was going to be writer when she was ten. She wrote and self-published her first novel — Cracked Up — when she was thirteen. She’s a woman in a hurry. She is from Albany, NY, just down the road from me, where she has been studying creative writing privately with my friend Gene Garber who brought her work to my attention.  This fall she plans to start in the MFA program at Syracuse University. But the plot thickens, as they say. Lindsay suffers from sickle cell anemia, she’s already had a liver transplant. You can read about this on her web site. I’m not revealing secrets. It makes my heart sore to read about this and yet see that smile on her face (look at her site — she smiles a lot) and to think of the struggle she has been through to get her words out. It’s a deep pleasure to publish her here. “The Artist” is a painfully real story of a child/girl/woman lapped in the doubtful bliss of a nuclear family from hell. The word “artist” is meant to be both true and ironic: the artist is the girl’s father, a musician who murders his wife in a spasm of long accumulated love-hate, a dramatic, intimate dance macabre of obsession. Victim and unwilling co-conspirator, the girl, as is the nature of such children, is a minute observer of her parents’ faults. Her telling is chilling and courageous — in our politically correct era you rarely see a woman’s self-obsessed evil dissected so carefully. We’re in Mommy Dearest country here. But the mother is a dream compared to the father who does his best to enlist his daughter’s sympathy and complicity, undermining her sense of self and reality from the padded cell where he lives, really and metaphorically.



When they questioned him, my father only said things like, “The first time I saw her there was a smile in her eyes.” Of course this frustrated the authorities, and later the doctors, but that was how my father talked. He was an artist.

They kept him in seclusion. He had padded white walls with a thin metal cot and a twelve-by-ten floor space to pace hour after hour, day after day. He could only leave to go to the bathroom down the hall, flanked by an attendant the nurses on the ward called Big T.

I smiled a little when I imagined my slim father taking on someone named Big T. My father didn’t even kill insects. He was the gentlest person I knew. “Violence is for animals and the unloved,” he would say whenever he caught me in my room punching pillows and stuffed dolls, picturing the girls at school who made fun of my brown skin and knobby knees.

He never fought them. He let them take him away. He let them lock him up. He never had to be sedated or tied down when they pointed their fingers and made their allegations. The lawyers said my father couldn’t even manage an eye twitch or an agitated tone when responding to the bailiff. It was his perpetual calm, his unwavering refusal to testify, the way he regarded his cuffed wrists and my mother’s weepy relatives with a slightly irritated indifference that convinced the members of the jury he belonged with the criminally insane. In their estimation, only a psychopath could methodically clean his reading glasses while blown-up photographs of my mother’s body were displayed and discussed at length.

During the trial, one of my favorite fantasies involved watching understanding ignite in each juror’s eyes as I stood before the court with my own evidence. I would pass around the blue bow tie my father wore to the spring formal his sophomore year of high school. As a shy and introverted musical prodigy, he disliked school dances, but he took Patricia Himmel that year because she had just lost her father to cancer, she wanted desperately to go, and the fact that she had Down Syndrome discouraged other boys from asking her. He paid for her dress, called her a princess, and didn’t skip out on any slow songs. How could such a gentleman be anything but cooperative and composed when confronting his accusers? He was ashamed when he found out I spit on Nurse Mason, the head attendant of the ward.

Nurse Mason was a massive woman with big, blonde, teased hair and a smile with many meanings behind it. She acted sympathetic toward me at first, patting my shoulders and slipping me cellophane-wrapped sweets from her pockets. She held my hand in the halls so I wouldn’t be afraid of the other prisoners and the bars that clanged shut behind us. Then one day, while she talked to another attendant behind the desk where the medications were kept, I heard her refer to my father as “that ape.” She said it softly and meanly, sliding the words out with disgust. I could tell by her tone that it was something she said often. The next time she came to take me to him she received a mouthful of saliva in thanks.

My father shook his head, looked at his idle hands and said, “Corinne, you are fighting the wrong people.” He never stopped talking in riddles, even when our situation became desperate.

I say “our” situation because I believed then we were one person. Whenever I visited I would find him sitting on the cot, body limp, looking as black as night against the backdrop of his white prison. He would be right where I left him the previous visit. I tried to savor that hour and took in everything about him. I noted the new lines in his face and how much weight he had failed to keep on his already thin frame. I studied the stubble on his chin and the slope of his shoulders when he heaved sighs of resignation. I watched how he absently shifted his wire-rimmed glasses and the way his empty hands shook. He was used to holding a guitar or a saxophone and plunking away on a piano, his fingers moving with such speed and agility my eyeballs grew tired trying to keep up.

When they weren’t making art, his hands had always been busy taking care of me. He practiced perfecting recipes for chicken piccata and beef stroganoff. He carefully shampooed my kinky hair during bath time, lining up his rings on the edge of the tub so they wouldn’t catch in the tangles and make me cry out. He remembered to surround me with pillows to keep away the boogies when he tucked me in at night. He taught me how to strum his favorite acoustic, promising my sore fingertips would harden over time. He used both thumbs to squeeze playground splinters out of my palms, wincing whenever I whimpered.

It was torture for me, watching his fingers twitch from lack of use. My skin felt each tremor and broke out in goose bumps, as if his hands were grazing the sensitive spot on the nape of my neck instead of tapping his knees.

I wondered all the time if musicians could lose their gift. I was too afraid to ask. I didn’t want to remind him. Instead I would go home and touch my lips to his mouthpieces, letting the pulpy taste of his wooden reeds linger on my tongue. I would run my fingers over the black and ivory keys of his ancient upright, memorizing the scars cut into the wooden sides by time and use. I willed him to fly out of the hospital and momentarily possess my body.

He was in everything I did, everything I felt. I talked to him in my head, believing if I concentrated hard enough, the message would reach him. That way he was the first to know my eleventh birthday wish was to kiss Ollie Coulsen on the lips. Even though I couldn’t explain it to the school psychologist, my father knew why I slapped Hannah Malone after her prosecutor father did a presentation in front of the class during career week. When I stuck a tampon in the wrong hole during my first period he was the only person I told. He agreed that I looked best in black or purple in dressing room mirrors, and he didn’t care that I failed freshman biology. I knew he understood when I took a scalpel to dissect the frogs and rats and how the memory of my mother’s smooth sandalwood coffin in the funeral parlor paralyzed me.

I only excluded him from my mind when I thought about my mother. If my father knew how much I thought about her, it would have killed him. When I wasn’t worrying about him in his blanched cell, I remembered the way she would smile at nothing, as if her happiness floated in empty air. If I closed my eyes, images of her dancing in our kitchen filled the spotted darkness. She wore loose linen pants, long skirts, and flowing dresses; anything that billowed out when she moved, giving her a majestic quality. She had the kind of beauty that hurt. The kind that made people stare after her in the street. The kind that is too rare for a daughter to inherit. She kept her cinnamon brown shoulders bare and rolled back. She loved to laugh and did often, even when things were serious. Even when my father caught her slinking in during the quietest hours of the night, his mouth stern, but his eyes melting.

“Don’t be so dramatic, Reginald,” she would say, fluttering her hand in mild annoyance, dispersing faint traces of a stranger’s cologne into the air. Then she would beam at him and saunter over. “Come kiss your wife hello. Or good morning. Whichever you prefer.” And he would. He always obliged.

Standing at the top of the stairs in my cotton nightgown, watching this scene play out over and over, I learned to take my cues from my father and kept my distance, at least as much as a needy child could but, “Come brush Mama’s hair” or, “Watch Mama sew this shawl” were words I craved. Though most of the time she would send me away. “You’re cramping my style, kid.”

One of her favorite games was copycat. “Do like this, Corinne. Watch Mama and be a copycat.” I would be eating breakfast or watching cartoons when suddenly my mother would call me over to perform with her. She would strike some elegant pose from her brief modeling career or break out a complicated move from her childhood dance training. She made it impossible for me to mirror her, but I was never allowed to give up until she was thoroughly amused. She criticized my form and my inflexibility. She pointed out how hard I strained in my clumsy efforts while her movements came naturally. “What an ugly face you’re making. You look constipated, Corinne.”

My mother would assess me with one long finger prodding her pouting bottom lip. “How did I end up with her? Would you guess she’s mine? If there’s a god, I must be on punishment—Ma always said my wild teenage years would come back to bite me in the ass.” She took special pleasure in making my father agree with her comments.

“She’s mostly me,” he would say, keeping his gaze on my mother. “That’s not so bad.”

“And what man wants you?” was a typical response my father couldn’t get around. But he was always there when I dissolved into tears later on, away from her scornful smile. He never explained her behavior or tried to make excuses, but the shoulder I leaned on was solid and the hand that rubbed my back felt sure. I was grateful for these things.

My father’s older sister, my Aunt Flo, moved in right before his arraignment. She took it upon herself to rid the house of my mother’s presence. After the detectives swept through for evidence everything went into cardboard boxes, sealed and stored in the basement. I couldn’t tell Aunt Flo that I longed for just one picture of my mother.

One day, when I should have been fretting over pimples and my first homecoming dance, Aunt Flo showed me an exercise one of the doctors had assigned my father. On a yellow legal pad, his doctor had written “Sacrifices” at the top in ink. Using a blue crayon, my father crossed out the doctor’s title and replaced it with “Tradeoffs.” Directly below it he had scrawled “1.) Freedom.” Number two read, “Sanity.” Then there was a rough sketch of a dancing figure, more a flame than a person.

Aunt Flo shook her head. “He’s delusional.”

I bit back the reply my father would have given: “Love goes with delusion. Love welcomes delusion. It helps make it effective.” Instead I tried to match my aunt’s disgust with indignation. “They could’ve trusted him with a pen.”

But as always Aunt Flo saw through my attempt. I made it clear from the beginning whose side I was on. The day after my mother’s funeral, when my maternal grandparents tried to coax me into a hug, Aunt Flo watched with an open mouth as I pulled away. I said I never wanted to see them again because they looked and sounded just like her. Before that, I had always been Aunt Flo’s Corinne-baby-doll. After, Aunt Flo started to watch me out of the corners of her eyes.

“I’m waiting for his kind of crazy to come out. I know it’s in her. I’ve seen it,” Aunt Flo confessed to a friend over the phone. Aunt Flo thought she was being discreet shut up in the spare bedroom, but I was accustomed to listening through doors.

Once, my mother had pinched my arm until she drew blood, attempting to scare me onto my tip toes to practice pointe with her. My father sat me on the lid of the toilet, my heels not quite touching the floor, and handed me a Band-Aid covered with Big Bird’s face. Sighing into his cupped hands, he frowned at his reflection in the mirror above the bathroom sink.

“She was the first thing I ever really worshipped. She isn’t even human. Your mama’s a…a creature. How can I tame that? How can I muzzle her spirit? I’m just so blessed to be a part of her world.” There was a longing in his voice I mistook for sadness at the time. I wanted to believe he was sorry for our fate—that he knew he cleared the way that led my mother’s path of destruction straight towards us.

“Our first date she asked me how I planned on making her happy—that day and every day after. She said I would need to come up with something new every morning if I wanted to wake up beside her. I was dazzled. We were in a coffee shop and she asked me this. Didn’t even know my last name. Her words were too big for that place. She was too big for everything. Always has been. If we’re snowflakes, Corinne, she’s blizzard. You’ve got to remember that.”

The way she treated my father served as a constant reminder. She called him “my little drummer boy” in front of his students who came to the house for private lessons. Whenever he hosted struggling colleagues for weekend long stays, she would interrupt their jam sessions, drinking too much wine and saying things that made my father cough and clench his teeth. If he was receiving an honor, she was impossible. When they couldn’t find a babysitter, I would become a spectator alongside my father. It would start with my mother leaving me alone, scared and shaking, among strangers while she filled up at the bar. My father would follow the sound of my sobs and come and gather me in his arms. He always knew.

“Don’t cry. Salt is for the sea, not little girls in pretty dresses. Did she leave you again? She must be off misbehaving.”

That’s what he called it: misbehaving. He made it sound so simple, but I was always confused by what ensued. Usually, as my shy and modest father did his best to work the room, my mother would find a man or two to spend the evening with. Pins and needles were in her voice when she told me to wipe my mouth or not to wrinkle my outfit, but her words were syrupy sweet with the men. Suddenly, her feet couldn’t support her. Instead of her usual poise, she swayed into them and clasped their arms. Everything they said was funny. If she wasn’t laughing, she was telling secrets, her mouth dangerously close to their earlobes. My father pretended not to notice, but once we were trapped together inside the walls of our home my mother became, “loose” and “a disgrace” and “a bad influence.”

“Why do you insist on sabotaging our happiness?” he would ask after his short-lived rage melted down to anguish.

“You say it with such feeling, as if our happiness was more than a myth. Cry a little next time and maybe I’ll believe there’s something for me to sabotage.”

Later, he would interrupt a bedtime story to insist her cold response was the effect of alcohol. “She only sounded sober,” he would say as if the Berenstain Bears needed convincing.

She was careless about who called the house when my father was home. If it was a strange man my father would confront her, sometimes with tears in his eyes and sometimes with a raised hand that she confidently ignored. More than once, I witnessed my mother crying and pleading, her lithe body collapsing into him in such a way that he had to hold her in his arms to keep her off the floor. She clutched at his neck and pushed her lips against his collarbone, talking into his shoulder. “I’ll go. Say you don’t love me and I’m not worth it and I’ll go. Say it, Reginald. Say it just once and I’m gone. No more wife for you, no more mother for Corinne. Either you say it or we move on from this right now.”

My mother rewarded my father’s silence by leading him to their bedroom. If he held back or flat-out refused, asking for time and space to think over her latest betrayal, he was irresistible. “Jesus, not in front of Corinne. How can you be thinking about that right now? How can you expect me to with all this sitting in our laps, weighing us down?” As my father scolded, she would start to undress, limbs playful, prancing out of arm’s reach if he attempted to cover her. To preserve my innocence my father ended up in the bedroom before too much skin was revealed.

Everything my mother attempted, she mastered. The first time she picked up a tennis racket she managed to play with the same amount of style and moxie that she put into posing for a picture. Her vintage sewing machine was a Christmas present and by Valentine’s Day of that same season she was putting the finishing touches on my Christening gown. When she decided she wanted to sing, only an award-winning opera singer would do for a vocal coach. My father was in constant awe of my mother’s inclination towards perfection, but she wielded it like a weapon against him. “Golf is not rocket science. I’m the one with the bad shoulder and look at my swing. You’re such an embarrassment, I almost want to tell people you have a defect.”

All the ways in which my mother was superior replaced nursery rhymes and bedtime stories and hand games. Instead of cookie recipes and the secret of where babies come from, my mother shared my father’s shortcomings with me. “Six years of Spanish in high school and college and that’s how he pronounced it! The first time I walked in France, the natives thought I was one of their own. And I picked up the language in the dressing and work rooms of designers.”

Her honey-do lists were usually composed late in the evenings after she had drained her fifth gin and tonic and filled an ashtray with butts. While brushing his teeth in front of the bathroom mirror the next morning, my father faced post-it notes with tasks like “Grow a pair” or “Ditch the nerdy tweeds” written in an angry scrawl.

If he had to travel for performances, my mother suddenly forgot how to take care of herself and a child. “You’re leaving me, again? How can you do this, Reginald? What do I do? What do you expect me to do?” During those trips, neglecting me served as his punishment for choosing to go. My mother didn’t seem to care that she was punishing me as well, but what bothered me more was that my father never ceased to be surprised when he came home to empty pantry shelves and the rank smell that wafted from my unwashed armpits.

If he needed to be alone with her—if he needed just one kind word or glance or touch to get him through the day—she became as frigid and dense as a statue. She pretended not to know how to read his body language or his thoughts. He became a stranger. “Don’t look at me like that, Reginald. You’re like a creepy old man at a dark bus terminal or something. If those are bedroom eyes then I’m the Virgin Mary.”

Everything he was passionate about she found fault with. “Reginald composed a piece the other day. It’s cute, I guess. Kinda long and drawn out.” A shrug and a smirk. “He tries.” This was her small talk when asked about her husband and his life’s work. If someone praised him she would tilt her head to the side and furrow her brow in mild perplexity until the person grew doubtful and trailed off. If they talked about his awards and titles and recognition, she looked away like she was listening to a buzzing in her ear until the subject changed.

Slowly and painfully, my father became as dull as she wanted him to be. The lively jazz compilations he was known for were replaced by somber marches and overtures suited more for high school bands than dance clubs. His friends dwindled and he spent his weekends shuffling through files that didn’t need organizing or using a good portion of the kitchen table for games of solitaire. His jokes became ordinary and obvious and when Aunt Flo came to visit she would say things like, “Are you taking your vitamins, Reginald? You look so flat.”

At the time, I didn’t see any danger in his deliberate retreat. Like an obedient daughter, I followed in his footsteps. We became mundane to make room for my mother’s brilliance. Our lives revolved around my mother and we accepted this. We accepted this because she would dish out her cruelty with a smile and a laugh. She made light of every pain she inflicted on us with a kiss and a broken promise. This was what my father chose for us. She was what he wanted, and I wanted everything he wanted. I would have lived out my life and perished in her shadow, but one day she never came out of her bedroom to make her morning espresso.

Instead, my father shook me awake when the light on my bedroom floor was still gray. As he helped me dress, his gaze kept trailing over to rest on the wall separating my room from the one he shared with my mother. After my sandals were strapped on, we stood by my window, taking turns imitating the early morning birdsong. Our whistles filled the air, replacing the heavy silence of new death. When the sun was higher in the sky my father sent me over to the next-door neighbor’s to play with their dog. The next thing I knew, I was attending my mother’s funeral. I was only nine and she would have been thirty the next month. Now I lie awake in bed at night—guilt strangling the deep breaths I struggle to take—wondering why I chose not to hear the sirens over the wooden fence as I let my hands become sticky with canine kisses.

My first therapist once asked if I missed my mother and I considered my last visit to see my father. I kept probing for details about the progress of his trial that I wasn’t allowed to sit in on. The adults that made the decisions in my life—Aunt Flo and the lawyers—felt it was too traumatizing for a ten year old. All my father wanted to talk about was juror number seven’s habit of smoothing the edges of her hair with the flats of her palms just like she used to. “It’s mesmerizing. I can’t concentrate on anything else.”

“Missing her would be a treat.” I tried to make my voice as deadpan as possible but the therapist told me not to resort to passive aggressiveness in our sessions. Then, remembering my age, she explained what passive aggressive meant. I told her I needed a new therapist.

“Your mother ages me,” he would say whenever she failed to come home in the evening. He was much older than her. At the time of her death he was in his late fifties. Even in my earliest memories, my father’s hair was pepper gray. He preferred expensive Italian loafers over sneakers and shaved with an old fashioned blade.

He was too old to put up with it all. He was too goddamn gentle. Every week I would visit my father. His eyes would lose their fear when they locked on mine. “Hello, cupcake,” he would say with gravel in his voice. It was probably the first thing he uttered on those days. Those two words and those eyes that he softened just for me left me speechless sometimes. I just stared as the unshed tears backed up in my throat. Several visits ended with me straining against the arms of the attendants. I considered myself more useful than the lawyers and so I welcomed the feeling of my muscles growing tired. I measured our success by how many bruises I collected from firm handgrips. On bad days they threatened to have me banned from the ward. I later found out he wouldn’t eat if they didn’t let me come. That was his only rebellion over the years.

I fought for him in so many ways. After he opted out of the appeal process I believed for a while the incident with the fire was a part of our crusade to clear his name. The thing with my wrists was harder to explain to my psychiatrists. When I told them I had to spill enough blood for my father to feel my love for him despite the distance, they suggested time apart. They considered keeping me away from him beneficial to my mental stability, but I saw it as another test.

“I did it, cupcake. I did it and nothing you do can undo it. We are all guilty of something in life and this is my guilt to live with. Stop trying to prove my innocence.”

His voice was even and steady, yet I had to clutch the cold metal of his cell door as the floor pitched beneath me. I couldn’t get over the shock of this contradiction. It distracted me as he searched my face, trying to gauge my reaction, as if it mattered anymore.

I was seventeen by then and my father was becoming frail. Aunt Flo and my doctors had kept us apart for almost a year. In preparation for the time of our reunion I chopped off my hair, using a razor blade so it sat on my head in nappy tufts. I spent hours in the sun, darkening my skin to a burnt black. I skipped meals to keep my hips and chest from filling out to match my mother’s curves, feeding my hunger with sugarless gum and cotton balls. My father would not find any traces of my mother in me.

“I would have believed in you forever,” I said. I would have believed you were innocent until I died,” I whispered, looking at my bandaged wrists. The gauze wasn’t necessary anymore, but I wore it like a name tag. Hello, my name is Reginald’s damaged goods. I forgot who I was without it.

“Well, now you can move on. We can move on.”

I touched the thick sleeve of his hospital robe with my fingertips and resisted the urge to ask him where he thought we could possibly go. I had learned long ago to synchronize my breathing with the hum of the radiator beneath his barred window.

On the long car ride to outpatient therapy later that day, Aunt Flo felt like trying to understand us. Occasionally, she would get homesick for a healthy family. “How did it happen? How did they happen? How did you happen, Corinne?”

I thought puzzling out reasons and searching for meanings was pointless. I still embraced my self-abasement like a swooning lover. Accepting that everything was partially my fault made it easier to bear the weight of his hand covering mine.

I could’ve told Aunt Flo about how my mother and father met. He spotted her in a crowded bar after his set and when he finally approached she gave him a once-over and said around her cigarette, “I’d ruin you.”

My father proposed eight times before she said yes. She was a year and a half into her modeling career and was already tired of the competition. She confessed matrimony was a way to pass time.

“Everybody had high cheekbones,” she used to say. “Everybody had a dancer’s body. Everybody, everybody, everybody—it got so that they were looking for the freaks among us. Who had the twiggy legs, the androgynous face structure, the fish lips? Plain old stunning wasn’t enough for those pricks.”

But maybe that wasn’t true. Maybe it was all in my head. Maybe these intricacies were created by time and for the love of my father.

I was eight and a half the day my mother decided she wanted to color with me. It must have been the middle of winter because more than anything, I remember the sound of her thick wool socks sliding across the wood floors. She ordered me to bring out my markers and crayons and set my father’s newest composition in front of me. It was one he had struggled over for months and his only full copy. My mother gave me her best and brightest smile but I smelled the trap. The excitement that lit up her face had a disturbing sheen to it. I refused and we argued until her sharp reproaches produced tears. Scoffing, she took up a marker and scribbled by herself.

When my mother grew bored with coloring she rooted in my toy chest until she found glitter, glue, and stickers. As the stiff black marks dotting the bars of music disappeared beneath her work, she hummed over the sound of my sniffles. When she had destroyed all fifteen sheets of music she placed them back on the piano bench where my father quickly found them.

She let him scream and rage at me for what seemed like an eternity before stealing into my bedroom and putting her color-stained fingers between me and his fury. “What do you think? Am I the next Matisse? Or maybe it reminds you more of a Picasso?”

My father said nothing. His chest heaved from trying to catch his breath and his eyes rolled everywhere around my room but in her direction. My mother’s presence used to captivate my father so much that watching her had been an occupation that absorbed him completely. Yet that afternoon he couldn’t study her collarbone and her calves to dodge the messy reality she threw in his face. The idea of her no longer served as his own personal oasis.

“Well, Reginald, what’s next? Are you going to punish me? Make me sorry?” She laughed. “You won’t be able to. You can’t make me feel responsible for your hurt feelings. You came to me with your internal weaknesses—batteries not included.”

I knew even then by the way she squared off in front of my father—her shoulders stanch while his sagged—that they had reached someplace beyond the damaged music.

The next week when I went to the hospital, I could tell he wasn’t present. I caught him standing by his window, looking over the grounds.

“I had a dream,” he said, “that your mother forgave me and you were better. You were better and it was beautiful.”

I didn’t respond. The suffering that usually tumbled from his slumped shoulders to sprawl across the space between us was missing.

“They let me out to use the piano in the rec room sometimes. It needs some tuning, but it’ll do. It’s going to get better. We’ll be okay. You’ll see, cupcake.” He smiled her smile—full of broken promises.

I donated his instruments to a local middle school and dumped his Oxford ties at a Goodwill. Now I dream of gangly boys with braces blowing spit into his trumpets and homeless men on corners causing the pedestrians to wonder why someone in designer loafers would need their spare change.

I have learned to converse with myself, think comforting thoughts when I can’t stop tugging at my earlobes, or after I realize I laughed too loud at something that wasn’t funny. When I remember to eat three solid meals a day my therapist smiles and says the equation is working: me + distance from the white cell = progress. But my heart throws up the word progress and grasps the memory of that day when he told me about the piano in the rec room with the same tenderness and need that dripped from his mouth whenever he uttered “cupcake.”

I never went back. I don’t know how to live with his truths. If people ask after him, I say, “My father is dead.” If people who read the papers and followed the news updates ask about what he did, I remember how important it is to look them in the eye as I say, “My father was an artist.”


—Lindsay Norville


Lindsay Norville received her B.A. from Emerson College with a concentration in Writing, Literature, and Publishing and a psychology minor. She graduated magna cum laude within three years. During her freshman year of undergrad, she self-published a novel entitled Cracked Up with a small local press, The Troy Book Makers. She wrote Cracked Up when she was thirteen. She recently had a short story published in PANK. This fall she will start in the MFA program in fiction at Syracuse University.

Apr 132012

The chief pleasure of the filmmaking team Everynone‘s “Words” is the experience of assembling the pieces of the film, the montage, together like some massive jigsaw puzzle your mom got at a yard sale, sans box with overall picture to guide you and with, continually, the possibility of a missing piece or two. So watch it first, then proceed to this “introduction” as “aftroduction.” Afterword sounds so final, and I think you’ll want to watch this is again.

Watched it? Experienced it? Then read on.

Watching “Words” is slippery, a luge of sequitur with a side of slip and slide of the tongue. The film moves from scene to scene through association, one replacing the other in a chain. The links are sometimes through homonyms (various visual meanings for the word “play”) and homographs (words with the same pronunciation, but different spelling, like “brake and “break”), sometimes through complex scenes (the image of a trumpet player which first signifies “play,” but then continues until he inhales and shifts the chain to the word “blow.” These links form a pattern that may not be immediately discernible but reveals itself as the montage slips by.

The chain is one level simple: “play / blow / break / brake / break-up / split / run / runway / fly etc.” And yet it rises above gimmick, elevates itself above the simple chain of words. I laughed at things that are “not going to fly.” I got a little misty at the “split.” These emotions, too, were linked.

This process of the mind slipping along with the images seems amenable to how our minds work, a familiar game of charades capitalizing on how familiar our brains are with this kind of associative work. Sigmund Freud, in his Psychopathology of Everyday Life, argued that slips of the tongue are related to the work of ‘condensation’ as he identified it in Interpretation of Dreams. He added in Psychopathology that “a similarity of any sort between two elements of the unconscious material – a similarity between the things themselves or between their verbal presentations – is taken as an opportunity for creating a third, which is a composite or compromise idea” (100).  We are not just seeing the individual scenes here, they, at several points combine with our own (unconscious) experience to create another level of experience.

Dynamically this sounds very similar to Sergei Eisenstein’s theories around intellectual montage, where he argued for a combining of visual images to create conflict. In “Beyond the Shot,” Eisenstein, in looking at how images can be brought together, noted that “the simplest juxtaposition of two or three details of a material series produces a perfectly finished representation of another order, the psychological . . . the concept blossoms forth immeasurably in emotional terms” (16). What links these scenes then is not just the connection of the chain of words. It is also a chain of emotional links. We experience these mostly unspoken “Words” emotionally, personally and experientially.

“Words” is just one of several shorts made by the filmmaking team Everynone. As filmmakermagazine.com explains, the team has “been creating witty and allusive short films to accompany the popular WNYC radio program Radiolab, heard on more than 300 public radio stations around the country. Radiolab explores science and philosophy in the guise of radio theater, mixing music and sound effects into presentations that thrillingly veer from the pedagogical to the personal.”

Everynone is a filmmaking team, according to their website “located in the redwood forest.” The team is made up of Daniel Mercadante, Will Hoffman, and Julius Metoyer III. According to their mission statement, “Everynone works primarily with non-actors to capture life as it is, carefully framed and distilled. Their mission is to uncover the beauty in the mundane and everyday; to band the emotion and aesthetic around one simple core idea. They play with the lines between documentary, fiction and experimental cinema to craft films that focus on concepts and feelings above all else.”

–R W Gray

Apr 132012

Liliana Heker’s novel The End of the Story begins with a description of a woman “born to drink life down to the bottom of the glass” and then leaps back over the decades to the beginning of the Argentinian Dirty War when youth and History collided in a spasm of hope and political violence and civil cannibalism. Heker is a woman engaged with History and Memory. But her History and the Memories are different, are at the antipodes, as it were, of the North American cultural experience. Her school girl revolutionaries sing rousing songs from the Spanish Civil War and join the Communist Party to fight fascism. Try to get your minds around the difference between Madonna singing the faux heroic, sentimental “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Spy3Nd2D6w and Joe Strumm singing “AY CARMELA!” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1eEW5VTqNM (the song referred to here as “The Army of the Ebro”). The chapter here presented begins with storytelling, loops back to school girl friends laughing innocently together, then knots in a Judas like moment of betrayal. The End of the Story was translated by Andrea Labinger and will be published later this month by Biblioasis. Wonderful to find this book and have it here on NC.


 Liliana Heker


Anyone watching the olive-skinned woman walk along Montes de Oca that October afternoon would have thought that she had been born to drink life down to the bottom of the glass. It had to be true. Even those who would disparage her years later would have noticed it somehow, seeing her advance towards Suárez like someone who has always known exactly where she was going. Diana Glass herself, who at that very moment was sitting cross-legged on the floor of her balcony – eyes closed, face upturned to the sun like an offering – must have thought so because sometime later she would jot down in her notebook with the yellow pages: She was born to drink life down to the bottom of the glass. Although a certain ironic expression (or was it just wisdom enough to soften the expression, to de-emphasize it) crossed her mind like a bolt of malice: Is that necessarily a virtue?

She was tormented by these distractions, which, from her very first notation on a paper napkin at Café Tiziano, kept diverting the course of the story. Not to mention the reality that, from that napkin to this haven on the balcony, had flung her – one might say – from hope to horror, and which (though neither one of them knew it), at that moment when the olive-skinned woman unhesitatingly turned off Suárez, heading towards Isabel La Católica, would once again begin to unravel her tale.

Strictly speaking, Diana Glass, who now opened her eyes and gazed admiringly at a bougainvillea blooming on the opposite balcony, hadn’t even decided where to begin: with the spring morning when a tree fell on her head and the two of them – or at least she – thought about death for the first time, or with a freezing, dusty July afternoon fourteen years later – when death had already begun to be a less remote eventuality, although it hadn’t yet become that chill on the back of the neck every time one turned the key in the lock to enter one’s house – as she waited nearly a half-hour for her at the entrance of the school, staring insistently towards the corner of Díaz Vélez and Cangallo so not to miss the elation – or the relief? – of seeing her arrive.

The name she was going to give her, on the other hand, was something she had decided right away. Leonora. Not because it had anything to do with her real name (less melodious), but rather because it went well with that face, with its high cheekbones and olive skin, still smiling at me from the last photo, and it suited that jaunty girl who, if Diana Glass had simply begun with that unpleasant July afternoon in 1971, would by now have burst out of Díaz Vélez onto the page, waving with such an old, familiar gesture that it would have made Diana forget her fear for a few seconds.

Later, it was different. The other woman had barely finished waving her arm, her features hazily coming into focus, when the relief would be replaced by a premonition of catastrophe.

It should be pointed out that Diana Glass is nearsighted and that, at the time of that meeting with Leonora, she refused to wear glasses. Her explanation was that the few things worth seeing in detail usually end up moving closer to you (or you to them) and besides, a nearsighted person’s view doesn’t just have the advantage of being polysemic: it is also incomparably more beautiful than a normal person’s. “Just think about the sky after dark,” she once said. “I swear, the first night I went out on the balcony wearing glasses, I almost cried. The real moon has no resemblance to that enormous, mystical halo I see.” And, she added, the diffuse forms allow a limitless range of imagination, as if the world had been created by some over-the-top impressionist.

These are the sort of interruptions that disturbed her. (Absurdity has invaded the story, she wrote, though not in the notebook with yellow pages, which she reserved for episodes that were more or less relevant, but rather on the back of one of those printed ledger sheets that she haphazardly filled: papers with a predetermined function exempted her from assigning one to them herself and allowed her madness to spill out unrestrained. Absurdity has invaded the story, has invaded History. Nothing could be truer. She was plunging into History; perversely, doing so prevented her from dealing with the purely historical, despite her belief that history was the only thing that made any sense.) For example, she was unable to assess the exact quality of her fear at the school doorway (assuming, of course, that the fear was historical) without noting her surprise at the fact that the closer the woman got, the more unfamiliar she became, and how could she explain that phenomenon without mentioning her myopia? But if the beginning was hesitant, the ending was alarmingly blank. Nothing. Just a little faith and a few old photographs. And a very immediate fear lodging at the back of her head as she turned the key in the lock of her front door – and at this very moment – and didn’t go with the light of this October afternoon in 1976, a light that illuminated the bougainvillea, adorned Buenos Aires, and mercilessly enhanced the olive skin of the woman who has now turned off Suárez and is heading towards Isabel La Católica.

The trees on Plaza Colombia catch her by surprise. It’s as if something dangerously vital – more suitable to a jungle than to this grey street with its stone church – as if an unscrupulous thirst for life had forced them to overflow the plaza, invade the sidewalk of Isabel La Católica and bury the unfortunate Church of Santa Felícitas beneath an avalanche of joy.

She has one desire: not to go to the meeting at the house with the white door where Fernando, the Thrush, and two others must already be waiting for her, not suspecting the contents of one of the two letters she hides in the false bottom of her purse. To run away towards Plaza Colombia, that’s her precise desire. This, however, doesn’t disturb her, as the purple explosion of bougainvillea has disturbed Diana Glass to the point of forcing her to leave the balcony and walk to the library. Both of them loved the sun, she thinks, like someone who’s writing it down (or like someone making excuses for herself) – as she did so often in those days – and she takes out the box with the photos of the trip to Mendoza.

There they are, the two of them. Among vineyards, on top of a stone block, on the shoulders of a couple of drunks, on a suspension bridge, thumbing their noses, in wide-brimmed hats, always laughing and embracing and a bit outrageous among the group of brand-new – and slightly foolish – schoolteachers.

The woman who at this moment is walking through the imitation jungle that spills out of Plaza Colombia lifts her head for a moment, allowing the sun filtering through the leaves to flicker on her face without thinking: I was born to drink life down to the bottom of the glass.

It might not displease her if someone else thought it for her. That’s true! she would exclaim if she knew about this assessment of her person that Diana Glass is about to make. She knows how to delight in other people’s words and put them at her service when necessary.

But she doesn’t need to define herself in order to confirm her existence. Accustomed to action and to charging headlong at everything in her way, she knows she exists because her body (and what’s a brain but a part of that body?) displaces the air as she moves, leaving an exact impression on the world. And if she hasn’t slowed her pace, if she hasn’t gone running towards Plaza Colombia, following her heart’s song, if she’s left the trees behind, guiltlessly abandoning this fleeting, intoxicating desire, if now, without a speck of desire, she’s about to head proudly and resolutely towards Wenceslao Villafañe, it’s because, even now when her world seems to be tumbling down, she’s still capable of brushing aside all trivialities in the name of what she’s convinced she needs to do.


But with Celina Blech’s arrival (when vacation ended, in the time of the tree), something began to change. Celina, too, had read Captains of the Sands and had sung “The Army of the Ebro,” but she possessed a quality Leonora and I lacked: she could unhesitatingly state who was a revolutionary and who was a counter-revolutionary. Heraclitus? she said. Heraclitus was a revolutionary, and Berkeley was, without a doubt, a reactionary. Listening to her was amazing: standing beside the bench, flanked by girls who crossed themselves before class and went to dances at the club with their mothers every Saturday, and by girls who neither crossed themselves nor took their mothers along to dances but who didn’t seem too impressed by Heraclitus’s revolutionary powers either, she had the guts, in front of the philosophy teacher, an active member of Catholic Action, to obliterate Berkeley with a swipe of her pen for his notorious inability to start a revolution. The daughter of a poetic Communist shoemaker of the old guard, she behaved with the confidence of someone who has always known where the world is going and who moves it. It was she who taught us to read Marx. How could anyone forget the leap of the heart, the jubilant certainty (for me, too) that the world was marching along a happy course, when reading for the first time that a spectre is haunting Europe ? And every week, concealed in an innocent-looking package, she brought us a copy of CommunistYouth magazine.

She never flaunted her superiority before Leonora or me – she was good-natured, a comrade, and she had little patience for the rock and roll that, despite “The Army of the Ebro” with its rumbalabumbalabumbambá and its Ay, Carmela, Leonora and I kept dancing to frenetically during our Saturday assaults – but that latent superiority was there, nonetheless, and soon it would become apparent. In all other respects we were similar: all three of us loved the Romantic poet Esteban Echeverría and despised Cornelio Saavedra, the head of Argentina’s first junta; all three of us resonated to the verses of Nicolás Guillén; all three declared, with the élan of Spanish Republicans at the very moment of victory, that the invading troops rumbalabumbalabumbambá got a well-deserved trouncing, Ay, Carmela. So we sang and so we were that winter of 1958 when History invaded our peaceful Teachers’ Prep School in the Almagro District.

Later we would learn that it had been there all along, that, without realizing it, we had noticed it among the small events woven by our personal memories. Chaotically and without any sign – or with some fortuitous sign – I preserved the memory of that morning in grade two when they made us leave school early because some general had tried to oust Perón (whom I imagined as eternal and omnipresent, since he had been in the world when I was born and since my mother had forbidden me to pronounce his name in vain); the slogan Free the Rosenbergs, read on the walls of forgotten streets; the outrage of some older cousins at the phrase “Boots, Yes; Books, No”; the hoarse voice of a news hawker shouting War in Korea; and a secret, incommunicable envy when, in the movie newsreel children who weren’t me travelled through the Children’s City by bus like fortunate dwarves; a certain initial disbelief in the face of death the day the Air Force bombed the Plaza de Mayo; an almost literary emotion when a group of men, in a hidden place called Sierra Maestra, prepared to free Cuba – a remote country about which only “The Peanut Vendor” and Blanquita Amaro’s ebullient thighs were familiar to me; the bitter or dejected faces of some bricklayers one late September morning in 1955. Random fragments jumbled together in my memory, with the German acrobats around the Obelisk, with a butcher named Burgos who had scattered pieces of his girlfriend throughout Buenos Aires, with a nine-year-old girl who had drowned in Campana and who could be seen, brutally depicted at the moment she went under, on a page of La Razón. Scraps of something whose ultimate shape seemed – continues to seem – impossible.

And we would also come to know the dizzying sensation of imagining ourselves submerged in History. Because one day soon, reality would be shaped so that everything – I mean everything – that occurred on earth would be happening to us. The Cuban Revolution and the war in Vietnam would be ours; the antagonism between China and the Soviet Union and the distant echoes of men who, in the Americas or in Africa or in every oppressed corner of the planet, lifted their heads: all of it would be our business. We fleetingly attempted to figure out the meaning of our lives. And we would live with the startling revelation – and the strange reassurance – of understanding that the world could not do without our deeds.

But that was the end of the winter of 1958 when, as proper young students, we recited the lesson from Astolfi’s History and sang that bombs are powerless rumbalabumbalabumbambá if you just have heart, ay Carmela; that September of 1958 when History came to Mohammed. It awakened the universities, shook the entire nation, invaded classrooms for the first time, and at the peaceful Teachers’ Prep with its wisteria-covered patio, it left no stone unturned.

I wonder now if it might have been a gift, a blessing whose uniqueness we were unaware of: to be fifteen years old and to have a compelling cause. Everything seemed so clear that late winter and the following spring: on one side were the people, behind a goal as incontrovertible as universal education; on the other side, the government, allied with the power of the church in order to impose its dogmatic, elitist lesson. It didn’t matter if the motives of either side were less than transparent. At fifteen, beneath the budding wisteria and with a motto that seemed to condense all possible good and evil for the species – secular and free, we said, confident that we were encompassing the universe – we believed we could confirm forever those words we read as though they were anointed: the people’s cause is a righteous cause; all righteous causes lead to victory; we have a role to play in that road to victory.

The headiness of the struggle, combined with the golden wine of adolescence – wasn’t that our touchstone, the stamp that marked us? I look around me on this particularly dark night in 1976 and can see only death and ravaged flesh, and yet I keep on stubbornly typing these words, perhaps because I can’t tear hope from my heart. Because once you’ve tasted that early wine, you cannot, do not want to give it up.

I see I’ve gotten mired in melancholy, but that wasn’t what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about certain domestic problems.

We’ve already established that there were three of us muses, three of us in the vanguard, and that our task was nothing less than to rouse a group of nice, future schoolteachers who hadn’t asked to be roused and who, more than anything else, aspired to matrimony. It wasn’t easy. Personally, I can say that I killed myself haranguing those young hordes, prodding them to organize and strike. I closed the eyes of my soul and hurled myself headlong into the jumble of my prose. Only in this way could I fulfill my mission. Because if I stopped for one second to reflect, I risked reaching a conclusion that would render me silent: I had no faith that my words could change a single one of those heads turned towards me with detached curiosity. In other words, my political career was in doubt. Leonora, on the other hand . . . That September, dressed in her white school smock, she revealed herself to us like a Pasionaria. She spoke, and Argentina became a burning rose, crying out for justice. How could we not follow her? Behind her magnetic words, the holier-than-thou declaimers of Astolfi and the blasphemers, the virginal and the deflowered, agreed to join the strike. Even the holdouts showed their mettle: ignited with reactionary passion, they brandished their faith in the Church and their disgust with the popular cause like a banner. No one remained indifferent when Leonora spoke. In the classrooms where small, private dreams had nestled for years, a political conscience began to grow like a new flower.

Not only did she defy the school authorities (they expelled her at the end of the year, despite her excellent average): her father, whom she loved (and whom I secretly wished was my own father), the brilliant Professor Ordaz, an old-school idealist, loquacious defender of public education and friend of writers, was a government official who therefore (and in other ways) betrayed the dreams of his constituency. To oppose a government plan was to defy her father. But I was the only one who knew that. The others saw whatever they saw: a tall adolescent with a gypsy’s face. And perhaps they believed less in her words – acquired words that she effortlessly made her own – than in the uncompromising, vibrant voice that pronounced them.

So it was that Leonora became the architect of that unusual thing that was becoming apparent in the prep school of the wisterias. But the one who pulled the strings was Celina. In secret meetings with the few Communist youths at the school, she formulated policies that came (as we later learned) from a higher authority. We two were her allies in the field, her confidantes and friends. It wasn’t for nothing that she taught us a secret, last stanza that we sang quietly, savouring the nectar of rebellion: and if Franco doesn’t like the tricolour flag (rumbalabumbalabumbambá, ay, Carmela), we’ll give him a red one with a hammer and sickle (ay, Carmela). But we didn’t interfere in her decisions.

I can’t say that being left out bothered me. I’ve already stated that early on – and not without some conflict – I had accepted the fact that politics wasn’t my destiny. Besides, on the wall of my room I had a poster of Picasso’s “Three Musicians,” and in my soul was the melancholy of being “the grey beret and the peaceful heart.” I loved the rustic nobility of Maciste the blacksmith and Raúl González Tuñón’s verses; I was rocked in the cradle of Communism and didn’t mind having decisions made for me.

Leonora, on the other hand, wasn’t one to let herself be rocked. Shortly after that September, she told me she had a secret to share with me. It must have still been springtime because the memory of it blends with a certain perfume and with an almost painfully intense awareness of being alive.

She had slipped her arm around my shoulder and, as on so many other occasions, we started walking along Plaza Almagro. A habitual gesture, that embrace, clearly required by the four inches she had on me and by a certain matriarchal attitude she always assumed. We both liked – or now I think we both liked – to walk like that, as though feeling the other’s body made us strong enough to sustain the universal laws we invented right then and there as we walked along, which were designed to eradicate stupidity, injustice, and unhappiness from the earth. I was the lawmaker, quite adept at inventing theories for everything, though too shy or carried away to convince anyone who didn’t know me as well as Leonora did; so it was she, not I, who was in charge of using those arguments whenever the time came.

But that afternoon there were no arguments or theories. There was a revelation that shook me. I’ve thought a lot about her decision that spring. Maybe I still think about it, and maybe that’s the real reason I’m writing these words.

“I have to tell you a secret,” Leonora said as we walked arm in arm. “I’ve joined the Communist Youth.”

Her activism didn’t change things between us, at least not until she met Fernando. We told each other more secrets, and on our graduation trip (in spite of her expulsion, everyone, even her enemies, wanted her to come along), we scandalized the other newly credentialed teachers, as one can see in the photos. But without a doubt, something seemed to change in Celina Blech, whose knowledge of Berkeley now dazzled me somewhat less. Leonora had loaned me Politzer’s The Elementary Principles of Philosophy, and there they all were: Berkeley and Heraclitus and Locke and Aristotle and Descartes, fixing their positions definitively for or against the revolution.

I ran into Celina last year. She told me she had an important position in a multinational company – she’s a chemical engineer – and that she was about to go to Canada to work. I can’t stand this violence, she told me, and we talked about the violence of the Argentine Anti-Communist Association and about the madness that the rebel group, the Montoneros, was committing in their desperation. The worst part isn’t the fear of death, she said; the worst part is that now I don’t even know which side the bullet might hit me from. I asked her if she was still a Party member. She smiled condescendingly, like someone who had long ago forgiven the girl she once was. She asked me about Leonora. I told her I didn’t know where she was, and I wasn’t lying. How could I know her whereabouts that threatening winter of 1975?


She’s no longer thinking about trees. She’s walking along Wenceslao Villafañe, heading towards Montes de Oca. This might seem baffling to a spectator following behind her: why take such a roundabout route to go a single block? What the spectator wouldn’t understand is that, except for a deceptive interval containing an embrace that Diana Glass categorized as triumphant and belonging to the realm of hope, for some five years now the mere act of moving from one place to another has obliged her to undertake some disorienting manoeuvres. She knows – she is, or has been, a more than competent physicist – that in Euclidean terms, a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, but it isn’t always the safest. And a leader, above all, must always have her own security in mind, as Diana thought five years earlier, beneath a dusty sky.

She’s late because she couldn’t risk waiting for me. The thought doesn’t comfort Diana: for the last few minutes, she’s done nothing but gaze towards Díaz Vélez and towards Cangallo with little spastic turns. A waste of time, useless, since it’s unlikely she’ll be able to recognize her from so far away, as she used to do at the time the tree fell on her head. Not only because on this July afternoon, she’s much more nearsighted than she was that spring (a surprisingly early spring, or so it seemed to me because never before – and never since – did I feel so intensely the fragrance of the wisterias at the Prep School or the pleasure of walking down the street bare-armed. Everything was happening for the first time that spring when I was fourteen. Life, I said to myself, is something formidable that knocks you over like a wave and which not everyone can feel in its total splendour. “The two of us, you understand, we really do know how to feel life, the transformation of life, in our own bodies.” I liked those words: transformation, life, bodies; I loved words because they were capable of preserving each thing in its perfection. Leonora needed them less than I did because Leonora was her dark body, and she especially was her hair, long and coppery, heavily undulating to the rhythm of that body. And yet, during that spring of 1957, words and things were inseparable for me, as well. Wisteria was a melody and a perfume and a shade of blue, as if everything around me had conspired to make me happy), not only, as I say, because on this July day she’s more nearsighted than she was that spring, but also because she can’t even be very sure of recognizing her from a distance.

They’ve seen one another only three times in the last ten years, under precarious conditions: the first time, at the Ordaz home, among old pots and pans, dying of laughter at age nineteen because they understood – or cared – very little about such chores, but nostalgic in spite of their laughter, or at least Diana was nostalgic, watching, a bit mystified, as Leonora put together an outlandish trousseau because she was going to marry the most beautiful – and the purest, Diana would think one night at a party – militant Communist in the College of Sciences: Fernando Kosac, with his grey eyes and transparent gaze. They seemed like a lovely adolescent couple from some Russian film, she would think nine years later as she read the police reports in the paper. The second time was also at the Ordaz place – Fernando was on a trip, she explained without further clarification – when their daughter Violeta was born, and Leonora, always knowing her place in the world, was all bosom, milk, and opulence. The third time was during an encounter so fleeting that she didn’t even have time to look at her friend carefully. Diana walked through the Ordazes’ front door at the exact moment when Leonora was rushing out, so they bumped into each other. They exchanged a kiss, and Leonora, one second before shooting out the door, said, “They killed Vandor.”

It was surprising, but not so much the death itself. At that time, history still seemed logical to Diana, as did death. And a traitor was a traitor. Stumbling unmethodically, history marched irrevocably forward. That’s the way it was. Only she, always so speculative, didn’t have the time or the desire to stop and think that “forward” was as perfectly opaque an expression as “yonder” or “in the olden days,” capable of obscuring more than just history.

It was surprising because the tone didn’t match the meaning. As if she really had said Violeta has a fever. They killed Vandor: that’s why I have to leave in a hurry.

“We’ll talk another day, when there’s more time.”

But there was no time. Because, as always, ever since their return from the trip to Mendoza, life carried them along divergent paths.

And so they hadn’t met again since the day before that dusty afternoon, if you can call something that happened in the intersection of two incompatible dimensions a “meeting.” Diana, lying in bed, reading the paper and drinking mate, and Leonora fleeing to who knows where, from an announcement on the police report page.

What the report said:

That a highly dangerous terrorist cell had been uncovered. That the boldness of its constituents was immeasurable. That the subversives had been planning to blow up the official booth on July 9, when the Argentine and Uruguayan presidents and their entire retinues would be watching the parade. That to that end they had planned to use a fuel truck they had stolen in Nueva Pompeya, loaded with ten thousand litres of gasoline.

The question that crossed Diana’s mind (momentarily interrupting her reading): How do you steal a fuel truck? And this query generated what threatened to become an unending chain of thoughts, starting with the initial question: how do you steal a fuel truck? This chain led nowhere and was destined merely to chase its own tail, to spin meaninglessly around the woman lying in bed, thinking (there’s a sort of action that’s totally alien to someone accustomed to thinking in bed while drinking mate, she wrote, embarrassed or melancholic, that same afternoon on the back of a deposit slip) and indirectly wondering: Would I be capable of stealing one? And even more incisive: Do I have any right to speak of revolution, to want a revolution, when I can’t even steal a fuel truck? This precipitated a conflict that threatened to degenerate into another, indirect question leading to unforeseeable conclusions, specifically: If I were certain that stealing the fuel truck would lead unfailingly to revolution, would I steal it? This, in turn, seemed to hide the corollary: it isn’t certain that stealing the fuel truck would lead to revolution. Suddenly, a name, casually noticed on the newspaper page, yanked her abruptly from those Byzantine musings.

What was that name? Kosac.

What she did next: she turned back and read: It all began at dawn on Wednesday, when police personnel armed with rifles raided an apartment at the intersection of Juan B. Justo and San Martín. The police managed to collect a large quantity of subversive data and materials that led to further measures being taken. The place was vacant, but neighbours informed this newspaper that it had been occupied by a young couple named Kosac and their approximately five-year-old daughter. These two subjects were among those individuals most actively sought by the police. “They were very friendly,” affirmed a neighbour who refused to give her name. “Very nice; they always greeted me in the elevator.”

She didn’t steal a fuel truck, but she did take action in her own way: got up, got dressed, grabbed a taxi, and fifteen minutes later was standing before the Ordazes. I’m here for whatever Leonora needs, brave little soldier raised on the Maid of Orléans and Tacuari’s Drum. Which led her to receive an anonymous call the next day: My dad said you wanted to see me, and even before recognizing the caller’s voice, she recognized the turn of phrase, crystallized in her childhood like a school snapshot.

For which reason she’s been waiting for half an hour at the entrance of the school, looking first towards one corner and then another with a not altogether unwarranted fear, since something more suited to a morbid imagination than to the realm of possibilities was happening that winter of 1971. Not long before, a lawyer had disappeared, and just a few days earlier, they took away a young couple. The man’s bullet-riddled body had been found in a ditch, but no one knew anything about the girl, and that was more terrible than the fear of torture or death; it was a black hole containing all possible horrors, something they hadn’t been prepared for, she thought, referring to herself and Leonora one specific summer night, singing their hearts out by the river, as though the joy of being adolescents and the need to change the world and the heroic ballad of a defeat were one and the same thing (Mother, don’t stop me for even one minute / for my life’s of no value if Franco is in it), not realizing, or not realizing entirely, that they were beginning to become impassioned with death.

No, not impassioned: familiar (as the olive-skinned woman who was about to reach Montes de Oca might have corrected her). And once you become familiar with death, nothing is ever the same.

But the one who waited for her at the entrance of the school five years earlier wouldn’t have understood her, since, even though she’s beginning to fear death, she’s hasn’t yet passed through a time of death that the one about to turn onto Montes de Oca knows quite well, since she’s seen death at close range, has planned deaths, and, with a firm hand and even firmer resolve, has killed a man.

The one who waits tries to forget about death. She thinks – has thought: she’s late because a leader must think about her own safety above all; she couldn’t risk waiting for me there. Which very feebly minimizes an unbearable idea: something has happened to Leonora, and another, even more miserable thought: the phone call was tapped; the man at the kiosk who hasn’t taken his eyes off me for a while now is there to take us both away, and what if Leonora doesn’t come? A thought that remains happily incomplete because in the distance, on Díaz Vélez, waving with her arm in the air just as she did during the spring of the fallen tree, Diana sees – or thinks she sees – that person who, now, five years later, with a haughty gait and a haphazard detour, is entering the same street she left ten minutes ago.


Only this time the detour proves useless: in the first place because the house with the white door is empty, and in the second because no one is following her: they’re waiting for her.

A certain breakdown in her contacts – something she paradoxically had noted in one of the two letters hidden in the false bottom of her purse – doesn’t allow her to know the first fact. And for five years she’s been accustomed to avoiding thinking about the possibility of the second: a warrior is obliged to take all precautions to avoid falling, as she teaches the novices; but once taken, she mustn’t think about danger: that would only weaken her in battle. For that reason, she’s concerned only about what she will say in the meeting of the Secretaries General. She knows it won’t be easy to justify what she wrote in the letter. Not in the one where she mentions the lack of contacts, which is strictly a technical problem that doesn’t require justification – the military government, carrying out kidnappings with impunity, is destroying the network of contacts, so that she cannot locate the Montonero presses in the capital, if, indeed, there are any left; in order to keep functioning as Press Liaison, she needs to make new connections in La Plata . . . (The prose is deplorable, Diana thinks, reading the back of a photo where Leonora appears by a window, radiant, rubbing her beatific eight-months-pregnant belly. Dear Friend: This letter is to inform you . . . What makes Leonora, a revolutionary from head to toe, write like an old Spanish teacher? She decides to omit the transcription of letters and dedications from her story; it would give the wrong impression.) It’s justifying the other letter that’s going to be difficult. And not because there haven’t been enough resignations in her life – from the Party to join the splinter group, from the splinter group to join the Revolutionary Armed Forces, from the Revolutionary Armed Forces to join the Montoneros – but she always knew how to make those resignations seem like a leap forward. This one, on the other hand, doesn’t seem a leap in any direction; it’s not even exactly a resignation, but rather the rejection of an offer. What to call it?

(Existential problems, Fernando, the most implacable of the four, would say, bourgeois scruples.

She wouldn’t respond to the insult. With authority she would point out that so many desperate deaths were hardly political.

“They’re killing us,” Fernando might say. “Our response must be to kill them.”

Would she have the courage to say she didn’t like any of it, that the people were now rejecting them and she didn’t like that?

“It’s not a question of what you like,” Fernando would say at that point. “It’s a matter of following strategy, and strategy is decided at the Commander level” – pause, eloquent look – “and by the Secretaries General.” Without intending to, he would see her as he had seen her for the first time, with her flaming hair and her haughty expression, entering the College of Science, and then he would resort to the only method he knew of swaying her. “Accept the post of Secretary General we’re offering you, and then you can discuss strategies with us. As an equal.”)

What would she reply to that? For the moment, she doesn’t care: she’s confident of finding the right response when the time comes. She’s not used to losing, and an unwary observer watching her walk along Montes de Oca would agree.

But the five men observing her are not unwary: they’ve been waiting for her for a half-hour, two of them from inside a car on the corner of Wenceslao Villafañe, and three others a few yards away, pretending to chat on the sidewalk. And it’s likely that at least four of them haven’t acquired the habit of reflecting on something like this: the rhythm of a gait can encode the secret of a man or a woman. One must love life, Diana will jot down days after this event, as the Bechofen woman observes her from another table, thinking: she has too much passion to give shape to what she’s writing. And yet, isn’t that where the seed of all creativity lies, in passion? One must revere life in order to form even an inkling of how much is sacred within a woman walking down the street.

Those four seem only to spy a possible prey that the fifth man, sitting next to the driver, hasn’t even noticed yet. Perhaps, against his will, he’s dazzled by the élan vital emanating from the woman who has burst into view on Montes de Oca. Or maybe a certain thread, about to break, still links him to that man who, intoxicated with the spirit of the times, once said that it was necessary to join the struggle, to become the struggle in the name of the dignity of the people. Who knows? (Diana Glass will ask herself one day). Who knows at what moment or under what circumstances a man becomes a life-hater? Or is he born that way? And she’ll ask herself this question, turning herself inside out to see if she can discover in herself how a chain of events, a singular combination of received words, can sculpt one in a unique, immutable way. Or is it that a saviour or a criminal or a traitor nests within each of us, just waiting for the right opportunity to leap out?

The man in the passenger seat still hasn’t made a move: he’s facing a new situation, and this, naturally, slows his action. It’s not that he’s the type to hesitate: two days before, he had no problem telling the Chief of Intelligence, known as the Falcon: “The meeting is going to be in a house with a white door on Montes de Oca and Wenceslao Villafañe.” But to point out a woman who, like the Pasionaria, addressed students at university assemblies – she was addressing him, an implacable and enthusiastic science student – to move his mouth or his hand and communicate, “That’s the one,” is something else entirely. He’s watching the woman walk along, confident, jaunty, self-assured, unaware that in a few seconds she will be subdued. And that power seduces him, but it also paralyzes him. For that reason he doesn’t speak: it’s the man sitting at the wheel who says:

“Is that the one?”

He just nods. Then he leans his head back against the headrest. It was easier than he thought: he simply let himself be, ceded gently in the name of life itself, barely confirming something that someone else like him would have confirmed sooner or later. He or someone else, what difference did it make? He closes his eyes for a moment, so that he doesn’t see the signal the man at the wheel makes to the ones waiting on the sidewalk. Nor does he see – someone has removed him from the car in order to carry out the task from a different place – how those men advance and, so swiftly that a pedestrian on sun-filled Montes de Oca Street couldn’t (or wouldn’t want to) tell if this was happening in the real world or in a dream, force the olive-skinned woman’s arms behind her back.

The Thrush, thinks the woman, who knows the Thrush’s propensity for sick jokes. She feels fleetingly protected by that joke, as if by a bell that protects her in some ancient territory of camaraderie, so much so that she admits what she never would have otherwise admitted: that, in spite of her haughty gait, now that so many others around her are falling, in a certain part of her heart she feels afraid. Because she truly and intensely loves life. Even though there is no unwary observer of this scene to note that the hooded woman shouting, “They’re taking me away!” and yelling out a telephone number that no one remembers was born to drink life down to the bottom of the glass.

—Liliana Heker


Liliana Heker was born in 1943 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is the author of two novels and many books of short stories and essays, in addition to being a founder of two important Argentine literary magazines. Her collected short stories were published in Spanish in 2004 and translated into Hebrew; her stories have been included in anthologies in many countries and languages. Her collection, The Stolen Party and Other Stories, is available in English. The End of the Story was not only a literary success, but a cultural event that provoked controversy and avid discussion of how best to remember the years of the Argentine dictatorship.
Andrea Labinger received her BA degree in Spanish from Hunter College, and her MA and Ph.D. degrees in Latin American Literature from Harvard University. She is Professor of Spanish Emerita at the University of La Verne, California. Labinger specializes in translating Latin American prose fiction. Among the many authors she has translated are Sabina Berman, Carlos Cerda, Daína Chaviano, Mempo Giardinelli, Ana María Shua, Alicia Steimberg, and Luisa Valenzuela. Call Me Magdalena, Labinger’s translation of Steimberg’s Cuando digo Magdalena (University of Nebraska Press, 2001), received Honorable Mention in the PEN International-California competition. The Rainforest, her translation of Steimberg’s La selva, and Casablanca and Other Stories, an anthology of Edgar Brau’s short stories, translated in collaboration with Donald and Joanne Yates, were both finalists in the PEN-USA competition for 2007. Her Web site is Trans/Latino Trans/Lation.
Apr 112012

Mark Anthony Jarman

Confessional: Years ago, some time in the mid-1990s, I took up hockey again and played for two years in the nascent Saratoga Springs men’s hockey league. At the time this was one step up from pickup games. Mostly we played in an ancient barn-like wooden arena that, as it turns out, had been built on PCB-contaminated land that is now vacant (forever, possibly) and sewn with grass. I got so serious about this, I would drive to Troy once a week for skating lessons  in a tiny private rink (also inside a barn). We would practice edging by skating round and round holding onto a metal hoop anchored at the center, first one way, then they other. One summer I went to a hockey camp run by professional hockey players. Of such things an old man still dreams. Four years ago I went back to the league and played one game. Awful.

Here’s is a Mark Anthony Jarman short story about playing Oldtimers Hockey in  New Brunswick. (Okay, more confession: Once, long, long ago, I won the Canadian Oldtimers Hockey League Sportswriter of the Year Award — the high water mark in my literary career.)  Mark is an old friend dating back to our days at the Iowa Writers’  Workshop. He’s from Alberta, lives next to the Saint John River in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where he teaches at the university. He plays hockey, wrote a hockey novel, has three sons, and was a regular pick when I edited Best Canadian Stories. He is the subject of my essay “How to Read a Mark Jarman Story” which originally appeared in The New Quarterly and can be found in my essay collection Attack of the Copula Spiders. He writes the wildest, most pyrotechnic stories of anyone I know. This particular story appeared earlier in Mark’s story collection My White Planet.



Drive the night, driving out to old-timer hockey in January in New Brunswick, new fallen snow and a full moon on Acadian and Loyalist fields, fields beautiful and ice-smooth and curved like old bathtubs.  In this blue light Baptist churches and ordinary farms become cathode, hallucinatory.  Old Indian islands in the wide river and trees up like fingers and the strange shape of the snow-banks.

It’s not my country, but it is my country now, I’m a traveler in a foreign land and I relish that.  The universe above my head may boast vast dragon-red galaxies and shimmering ribbons of green, and the merciless sun may be shining this moment somewhere in Asia, but tonight along the frozen moonlit St. John River the country is a lunatic lunar blue and the arena air smells like fried onions and chicken.  We park by the door, play two 25 minute periods, shake hands, pay the refs, knock back a few in dressing room #5, and drift back from hockey pleasantly tired, silent as integers.  And I am along for the ride.

Why do I enjoy the games so, enjoy the primal shoving and slashing and swearing and serious laughing at it all afterward?  In these games I have taken a concussion, taken a skate blade like an axe between my eyes and I jammed brown paper towels on the cut to staunch the blood.  Stitches, black eyes, and my nose is still broken from a puck running up my stick on its mission.  Might get my nose fixed one of these days.  One opposing player, when younger and wilder, is reported to have bitten another in the meat of the eye!

Today the inside of my thigh is a Jackson Pollock splatter painting: yellow green purple nebulas under the skin, flesh bruised from pucks hitting exactly where there is no padding (the puck has eyes).  At night my right foot pulses and aches where I stopped a slap-shot years ago.  My elbows are sore and they click when I move my arms.  My joints are stiff when I climb the pine stairs, especially now, since yesterday I took the boys skiing and then I played hockey at night.  Rub on extra horse liniment.  My neck won’t move freely and a check wrecked my shoulder last April and for weeks I had to sleep on my back or the pain awoke me.  Never got the shoulder looked at.  I pay money for these injuries, these insults to my spirit.

So why pay, why play the game?  As the Who sing, I Can’t Explain.  Hockey is my slight, perverse addiction.  Certainly I crave the physical side, especially versus working at the desk on 300 e-mails or doodling in a dull meeting. I enjoy the contrast, the animal aspects.  I crave a skate, a fast turn on the blades.

And I play because I am a snoop.  I learn things I would never otherwise know about New Brunswick, receiving a kind of translation, a geography lesson mile by mile, a roadmap, gossip, secrets, an unofficial oral history of this place’s lore and natives.  My team translates and I am along for the ride, a spy in Night-town.

We ride the highway down from Nackawic where we always lose to the Axemen or the Bald Eagles, millworkers on both teams up there.  I’m deep in the backseat of Al’s 4×4, but I spy a deer waiting by the shoulder like a mailbox.  I point it out to Al at the wheel.  The deer is hunched, nose out, poised to run across the busy lanes, its dark eyes inches from my face as our metal box blows past its snout and ears and private insects.

“I seem to hit one of those every two years,” Al says.  “Wrecked more damn vehicles.”  Al, as did his father, works fitting people with artificial limbs.  The passengers in our 4×4 all hold bags of gas station chips and open beer — what we call travelers.  I take up their habits.

Powder the goalie says, “I hit a deer last year and it was stuck across the windshield, this stupid face staring in at me in the damn side window.  Damn deer’s fault, up in grass above, everything hunky-dory, and doesn’t it decide to cross right when I’m there.  I must have drove 200 feet before the deer finally dropped off.”

“You keep it?”

“Didn’t want to get busted.  3 a.m. and I was drinking.”

“That’s when you keep them.  Toss it in your freezer.”

“Ain’t got no freezer.  Had to stop later at the gas station, headlights all pointed every which way.”

People are killed every year hitting moose on the road to Saint John.  Off the highway there’s a moose burial ground where they drag the carcasses and scavengers have their way with the organs and bones.  First they offer the dead moose to the Cherry Bank Zoo for its lions or tigers, I forget which.  The moose the lions don’t eat end up in the pile off the highway.

Dave the RCMP says, “Man, when I was in Saskatchewan I was driving to Yorkton and came across this guy who had hit one cow square on, killed it, and he clipped another and it flew down in the ditch.  It was still alive and I had to dispatch it.  I come back up and this guy is crying about his van, some red Coca Cola van, vintage I guess, front all pushed in, big V pushed in, crushed the grill, and this guy is just fucking crying about it and I said, Mister, I’m here to tell you you’re lucky to be alive.  But my van!  Just fucking crying about his little red Coca Cola van.

Powder the goalie is in possession of beer stolen from the truckload of Spanish Moosehead ale.  I’d like to have one can as an illicit souvenir.

“I’ll bring you some,” he says to me one game.

We do not let Dave the RCMP know this.  Dave, also known as Harry and the Hendersons for his furry back, also known as Velcro for the fur on his back, gets a hat trick one night, four goals the next game.  Velcro works hard.  “Come hard or don’t come at all,” he says.  Bad games he smashes his stick out of frustration, famous for ruining expensive sticks.  Powder’s goalie gear is chewed up by his dog, same dog that ate his rug and his plants and his pet iguana.

After the game in the locker room no lockers, but a cooler full of bottles and ice or if there is no ice then snow from the Zamboni.  My team stocks Propeller Bitter just for me.

“Any pussy drinks there left?” Thirsty the defenceman asks.  “Pass me over a wildberry.”  6 or 7 empty bottles by him.  He’ll drink anything.  Takes a traveler with him for the drive.  He’s not at the wheel; someone else is driving.

Thirsty was at the wheel on the road to Campbellton when his truck nearly went off the highway in a snowstorm, truck going sideways, going in circles on ice, his hands in deft circles on the wheel. They laugh about it now.

Big Billy says, “Thirsty’s arms were going like crazy, he looked like a cat digging in the litter box.”  Both are good rushing defencemen, often way ahead of the forwards.  Coach yells at them to stay back and play D.  Thirsty complains of a lack of fellatio at home, complains that he’s living what he calls a no hummer zone.  Or was that Big Billy the traveling salesman?  They sit side by side and joke and laugh and drink.

“Getting no leather,” they complain, “getting no skin.  Boys I tells yas, a woman gets married and she stops giving hummers.”

My wife says she likes the way I smell after hockey.

Get home late and buzzing and I can’t sleep, try to watch TV:  Ringo says to an overturned rowing scull:  “Come in #7, your time is up.”  I am 50; how long can I keep skating?  An 87 year old still skates for the Stinkhorns team.  I am still waiting for the Oilers to call, say they need a stay at home D man.

Funny that I didn’t really start playing hockey until I was about 30, playing with jazz musicians on Sunday nights in Calgary.  No helmets, few pads.  I was a pylon.  My nickname was Snepts.  Then I played nooners with the Duffer Kings at Oak Bay Rec in Victoria for a dozen years.  More and more pads, a helmet, then a visor.  My nickname was The Professor.  Same name here in NB.  Maybe I should take up a pipe.

Some games are lighthearted, a lark, others are grueling, violent.

Across the river in Nashwaaksis I chase a loose puck behind our goal.  #16 shoves me from behind, shoves me face first into the boards, exactly what players are told over and over not to do.  Neck or back injuries, paralysis, broken teeth, concussions, low self esteem, etc.   I get up yelling and pointing at #16 for a penalty, but it doesn’t matter as our team calmly gathers the puck, takes it down the other way and scores a goal.  The ref points into the net.

In Burtts Corner two of us race to a puck rolling in our end.  Different angles.  If he gets the puck he’s in on net.  I get close, swing my lumber and knock the puck away from their player, #10.  He knocks my stick right out of my hands, yells, accuses me of hacking him.  I played the puck, I know I made a good play.  He’s just pissed off I caught up.  When we’re all shaking hands after the game their goalie tells me, “#10 has gout.  He was owly before the game even started.”  Maybe he thought I was whacking his gouty ankles.  What is gout?  Some games I don’t shake hands.

“What are you doing to them back there?” a forward asks.  “Someone is always after you.”

Ted says, “He gives as good as he gets.”

They all join in.  “Oh he’s hacking and whacking, he’s clutching and grabbing like an octopus back there.”

I am innocent of all charges.

“That’s ok, boys,” says Ted, “that’s how we win games.”

Am I not a gentle soul?  Am I not always on the side of angels?  As Melville says in The Confidence Man, Many Men Have Many Minds.

A mining town.  Some regulars are missing from our team: a wonky knee or sun-tanning in Florida.  We look at the subs and judge our chances.  If we can just keep it close, respectable.

Clean ice and we skate in circles warming up, loosen our legs and bad backs and eyeball the team at the other end as they eyeball us.  Their goalie: is he good with his glove.  Go low? Go high?  Jesus didja see the size of his pads?  I try to find reasons to dislike the other team.  They ran up the score last game, made us look bad, they’re chippy, they probably like Bush, they probably kick orphans, their jerseys are too nice.  The ref blows the whistle and we line up, see what the first shift reveals to us, the mystery of the first two minutes.

The last two minutes tick so slowly when you’re hanging on to a lead; the last two minutes slip past too fast when you’re trying to scrabble for that one goal, to change that arrangements of bulbs glowing inside a scoreboard.

We get mad when Barker’s Point runs up the score on us.  A week later we run up the score on Munn’s Trucking and they get mad at us.  Some nights we’re piss-poor, but some nights our A-team shows up and we’re smooth, raised on a diet of ball bearings and motor oil.

Drive the night, drive the hills and hollows and bridges.  Ancient apple trees descend hills to the river in troop formation; arthritic looking, hunched over and no apples anymore.  As in New England to the south, many pioneer farms are grown over or subdivided into Meadow Lanes and Exit Realty signs, which my bad eyes translate as Exit Reality.

Drive the daylight to a hockey tournament and huge potato barns rise out of the earth, doors into cavernous earth, part of the hill.  JESUS HAS RISEN.  Spavined barns sulk, sun and snow destroying each fissured shake and shingle and hinge, molecule by cedar molecule.

The boys like the tournaments up in Campbellton, the North Shore of New Brunswick.  There they can cross a foggy bridge to take in the peeler shows on the other side of the water, watch what they term the Quebec ballet.  More strippers and neon signs than in bible-belt New Brunswick.  Last year Thirsty the accountant had a few and climbed up on a table and shimmied his own stripper dance, was disturbingly convincing.  He likes a dark dancer, stares and ruminates.  “Brown shutters on a pink cottage,” he says tenderly of her labial vicinities.  “Man she’ll get you going, get you up so a dog can’t bite it and a cat can’t climb it.”

Balmoral, Matapedia:  Scottish names and Acadian names on the highway signs and Franglais spoken in the bars.

A business-minded player on another team queries a woman as to how much money she makes in the Quebec ballet.

“125 a night, and ten of each dance is mine.  I have a pager and a cel and hook for 150 an hour.  I clear 140,000 tax-free in a year.”

One of the strippers writhing at the pole tosses off her leopard-skin g-string and Thirsty at ringside grabs her garment and hides it under his ball cap.  Later she searches the stage for her undies.  Where oh where is my g-string?   He saves this item as a souvenir.  Such behaviour is frowned upon in my other worlds, and this may be why I get a kick out of time lost in this world.

The ice is Olympic-sized, hard on the d-men with all that room to roam. But we don’t want to win too many games, we don’t want to get into the tourney’s final game because we’ll crawl home too late Sunday night. It’s a long drive from the North Shore.  Ted misses an open net.

“Bet you boys were relieved,” he says.  Ted is a tall drink of water, long reach, can corral the wildest passes.  In the city he runs an old family car dealership.  We lose 2-1 and are happy.

A crowded motel room, bodies stretched everywhere, hockey equipment everywhere, hockey on TV.  Thirsty places a ketchup pack at the base of the closed bathroom door and stomps hard on the ketchup pack, trying to spray Big Billy inside the bathroom.  The ketchup sprays all over Thirsty and in a fan up the beige door and wall.

My bottles of Propeller Bitter are gone down my throat.  I steal the last Heinekin from Thirsty.  He sits on a bottle: “Try and get this one,” he says.  The second day we have a very early game at the tournament: some of the guys are already drinking at 7 a.m., bottles beside them as they don gear.  Too early for me.  We stink in that early game, but are giant killers in the afternoon game, knocking out a very good team that planned to roll right over us.  There is no predicting.

Sugarloaf Mountain looms over the town.  The Restigouche River, the Bay of Chaleur, ice-fishing shacks lined up like a little village.  Snowmobiles worth hundreds of thousands of dollars are parked nose to nose outside our motel rooms; an intergalactic gathering, wild plastic colours and sleek nosecones and fins, looking like they’d rocket through space rather than over the old railroad routes that cover the snowy province.  Someone is killed that weekend on a Polaris going 90 miles per.

The lazy joys of beer after we win.  Griping and grousing and the lazy joys of beer after we lose.  I see an eagle on the way home, arcs right over my windshield.

Limekiln, English Settlement Road, Crow Hill, Chipman, Minto, Millville.  Narrow logging streams, dead mill towns.  Elms fit the world, the winding country roads to country arenas, our headlights on the underside of sagging power lines, wires painted by our light.

Coach’s car slides a bit on black ice by the Clark hatcheries where the wind and snow scour the low road.  Coach often gives me and Dave the RCMP a ride to the arena.  Coach is a burly retiree in a ballcap and windbreaker, a former goalie and back catcher, ferociously competitive when he played and he cannot understand those who aren’t the same.

“Jesus I’m sick of it, they show up and don’t have a stick, they don’t have skates.  Before I went out the door I’d make sure I had everything.”  His relatives are buried around here, a graveyard in a cliff.  He is a good driver.

“Been on these roads since I was a young fellow.  Ice in the same places every year.  Water runs off Currie Mountain and then freezes up.”  Coach keeps a supply of mints in his glovebox.  I sit in the back.

We skate our warm-up, Dave the D gazing up into York Arena’s old rafters, soon to be demolished.  Dave is my new partner on D, works for Purolator, not to be confused with Dave the RCMP.  Dave the D seems mild enough, is not imposing, but he is famous to older players as a former berserker.  They talk about how he used to get right out of control fighting in the industrial league.  Played in this arena for years.  Now he skates around and looks about in a contemplative manner.

“Lot of memories?” I ask at the bench.

“A lot of punches to the head,” he says in a quiet voice.

Dave the D gets flattened late in the game.  When he picks himself up I can tell he is calmly considering how to take it, what to do.

“Pick your spot,” I say.

“No, too old.  I’ll get hurt and I’ll hurt someone else.”  He sounds plaintive but smart.

After the game he dresses and leaves.  We think he’s gone home.  He flies back in the door later with a bottle of pop, surprising us, allows he was out in the parking lot.

“Thought I left that foolishness behind.  Guess I didn’t.”

We look at his knuckles; is he kidding?  Did he tune the guy?

“We wrestled a bit,” he says lightly.

I still don’t know what happened in the parking lot.  In the summer Dave tossed his hockey equipment into a dumpster downtown; he decided it was time to stop, his body was telling him to stop, but he worried he’d keep playing just one more winter unless he physically got rid of his gear.

Rough hockey at Burtts Corner two weeks ago.  A series of chippy games really, and I like them, I play better when there’s some turbulence, some contact.  I don’t want to glorify being moronic, but it’s an adrenalin charge, a cheap thrill that makes me interested in what’s underneath the mask, the visor, underneath the charges and swearing and grand gestures.  Is this a meaningless masculine pose; are we wanna-bes?  Or is it what Ken Dryden calls learned rage, what is taught and approved?  Or is it what waits in all of us just below the civilized veneer?  I find it so easy to summon.  It’s masochistic and childish, but I have to admit the threat of imminent violence is alluring (it’s fun until someone gets hurt, some childhood guardian intones inside my head).  Maybe it just beats paperwork.

“You don’t belong in old-timers,” Coach shouts at the player who hacked me.

After the game we tease him.  “Coach, you going out to the parking lot after that guy?”

“I could handle it.  Growing up in Zealand no one’s a pansy, it was a tough life.”

He continues on the drive home.

“I have a cousin three miles up the road, he’s got to be over 70 now, but talk about tough, big big hands and long arms.  Five years ago, so he’d be about 65 then, five years back two young guys from Kingsley were after him in Bird’s General Store, he was at a table, they knew his rep, he kept warning them and they kept after him and finally he gets up and BAM BAM, flattens both of them.  He used to fight every Saturday night at the dance on Stone Ridge.”

Coach stares ahead and talks as he drives and hand out mints.  The white river to our right, stars undulating above, and clusters of mercury vapour lights like coals spread to cool on a snowy hillside.  In the back seat I clear a tiny porthole in the frosted window and feel like a child listening to stories.

Coach says, “When I was a kid my parents would go to the Stone Ridge dance.  We had an old International half-ton and I spent a lot of time in that, sleep on the seat or get up and wander around, maybe the crowd would wake me up rushing out of the dance.  They’d go this way and that way following the fight.  I guess word got around and guys used to come up from Fredericton to fight him.”

It’s hard to imagine Coach as a little kid sleeping in the International at the Stone Ridge dance.  Navigator has known Coach a long time, Navvy has played with some of our players since they were in grade school.  He has horses, sulkies, and a bad back that’s making him miss most games this year.  He works in a halfway house.  Man coming back in the evening sets off a metal detector.  Navigator navigates him to the doctor who will examine him.  The doctor says there is a snub-nose pistol up his rectum.  The doctor says to Navigator, “Want me to pull the trigger and save us all a lot of trouble?”

Navigator tells prison stories, says, “50% of women in jail are lesbians, 50% are dykes, and the rest are just wild!”

Powder the Goalie says a woman who lives down the road calls him up, bit of a burning smell in her trailer, she says.  Powder goes over to see.  The panel is hot, smoking, what to do?  Goalie turns off the breaker, but the lights stay on.

“Oh, oh,” says Mike the insurance agent.

“Don’t call me, call 911.  Three fire-trucks come out, and two hydro trucks.”

“She was a looker in high school,” says Danny.

“Field dressed she’d be about 350 pounds.  Knees like this.”  Powder holds out his hands as if around a fire hydrant.

Mike winces, shakes his head. “Field dressed.”  Mike’s been on the team from way back, a slick skater.  Mike and Ted play well together on a line.  Big Billy calls them The Golden Girls.  “Coach, who’s playing with the Golden Girls tonight?”

Our goalie puts the puck in our own net; he has done so several times.  Bad game.  Mike gives the goalie a dirty look.  Ref skates over, plucks the puck from back of the net for the seventh time, says to our goalie, “Well the beer will still be cold.”

“You sir are correct.”  Laughs.

Coach is not laughing, wants a new goalie.  “He doesn’t have his head in it!”  He’s going to watch other teams, look for a new recruit.

Coach is tossed out of the game in Oromocto.  He stepped on the ice to yell “Fucking homer” at the ref.  A bad ref.  You can swear at the refs, but you can’t step on the ice.  Automatic suspension.  He walks off the ice in his city shoes: “Fucking homer!  Fucking homer!”

The other team is puzzled; most old-timer teams don’t have a coach.  “Who was that?”

Ted says, “You don’t know Scotty Bowman?”

Wheel!  Wheel!  Man on you!

Slow it down.  Make a play.

That guy couldn’t put a puck in the ocean.

Up the boards, up the boards, the glass is your friend.

Don’t put it up the boards; make a play.

Got time!  Got time!

Short passes, guys.

No centre line – hit the long pass.

16 slashed me, I’m going to kill him.

This goalie goes down right away; hang onto it and shoot high.

Shoot low boys, right on the ice.

I have to skate, love to skate, the action, the speed, feel physically uneasy if I don’t get a skate in.  Navigator has to quit his hip is so bad.  Pinky quits, Jerry quits, Mike quits, all the originals.  When will I stop — that moment with your gear poised at the lip of the dumpster.

They don’t know your life, but they know whether you back-check, whether you try, whether you can pass on the tape, whether you paid your beer bill, who is the weak link, who to give the puck to, who has the touch, who is cool under pressure (not me), who has a cannon (not me also), whether you can be relied on.

The group can be superficial, callous, sexist, racist, homophobic, insensitive, but I don’t feel motivated to correct anyone.  The range of our conversation, what is safe, is incredibly narrow and repetitive, i.e. Don’t bend over in the shower.  We don’t discuss the new CD by Arcade Fire, we don’t dissect books or Hamlet’s worries, we don’t display our worries.  There is a kind of censorship, but that is also true of my other worlds.  In the group some may dislike me, but we are intimate, tied up in a camaraderie that is worth something, to shoot the breeze, use stupid nicknames, tell bad jokes, drink cold beer together in boxers, laugh at stupid stories, and delay going back to dress shoes and duplexes.  Laughter is good, the doctors tell us.  And win or lose, I laugh more with these guys, strangers really, than anyone else I know.  When I moved to New Brunswick I wondered if it was a mistake, but I get home from hockey still laughing at some goofy story and think, This is a life, this is doable.

Gord Downie, the singer for The Tragically Hip, is hanging in Fredericton, auditioning for a hockey movie re-enacting the 1972 Canada-Russia series.  He wants to play Ken Dryden or else Eddie Johnston, the backup goalie.  I hope he gets a part.  If I met Einstein at the Taproom I’d likely have little to chat about.  Gord and I could talk hockey; hell, we could even play hockey.  The crews film at Aitkin Centre and Lady Beaverbrook Rink will be the Russian arena.

“They still need Yvan Cournoyer for the movie.  Anyone look like the Roadrunner?  Know any French?”

My TV last year, before the NHL lockout; Vancouver was playing, maybe the playoffs; it all seems so long ago.

“Naslund is open.  The offside forward has to collapse and help out.”

I can collapse.  I can try to help out.  But this is not our language.  Coach just yells “C’mon boys!” over and over in a disgusted voice, an exasperated voice.  This is the extent of our playbook.

“It’s such a simple game,” he moans.  Coach gets mad almost every game, folds his arms over his chest and turns his big back on our game, refuses to run the door.   It’s a simple game and a complex game.

Our cars cruise the Loyalist countryside, Acadian land, Maliseet land, prehistoric land; our cars drive up the river and turn into snowy corvid valleys, over covered bridges, past dark mills and swaybacked railroad stations where no tracks run, the rocky country the Thirteen Colonies dismissed as the tail and hooves of the ox.  Over and over we line up at the circle.  We pay 200 in November, we pay 200 more in January.  We are driven.  It’s like a devotion to winless horses.

Lace them up in an unheated pig barn.  There is no crowd noise, no music.  We play the game in silence except the players yapping at each other or at the refs.  There are no cameras, but we play our parts, hit the marks.  No one watches us, there is no first place, no last place, it all means little, really, but we keep playing.  Our skates glide in silence and noise, we step lightly, fleetly, fall into each other’s airspace until the rink melts into grass.  We don’t watch, we drive to the net.  We drive and we play.

—Mark Anthony Jarman


Apr 062012

Catman in Boxer’s Blow is a 1993 Z list action film by Hong Kong based director Godfrey Ho. Throughout his career, Ho created over a hundred films, the bulk of which were released between 1980 and 1990. His films, including the Catman series, have gained cult status by being viewed as some of the most unintentionally funny films ever made.

Also known also as U.S. Catman 2, the description of the film states that it is the story of Sam, a top “U.S. Agent,” who is scratched by a radioactive cat and gains superhuman abilities. His powers, including laser vision and chain-splitting strength, allow him to fight the evil Reverend Cheever, a priest driven mad, who plots to destroy the world using nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, none of context or back story is mentioned in the movie.

The plot of the actual film instead focuses on Bobby, a man chosen to go undercover in the Holy Cheever gang to make money for a group of arms dealers? Somehow? Catman doesn’t try to bore you with details, and there’s no point asking why a man is suddenly handed a gun and a task, or who most of the characters are, or why they are fighting each other. Catman only wants you to enjoy the fighting.

And there is plenty of fighting.

From the moment Bobby joins the Cheever gang, men are brutally beating each other, shooting at each other, and falling into things, like garbage cans that appear out of nowhere. Being a member of a ruthless, arms dealing, kung fu gang takes its toll on its members. In this scene, one member consumes a whole handful of worms for some reason. Due to intimidation? Some truth or dare game happening off screen?

Poor Bobby vomits as he is forced to watch this, while he is repeatedly beaten on the head. And this becomes perhaps the most relatable scene in the film as we know how Bobby feels. Know all too well.

The character Catman does make a brief appearance in the film. In fact, if we were to cut the film down to only the Catman scenes, the running time might be about eleven minutes long. Though his screen time is meager, Catman makes colourful use of it. Catman and his friend Gus (whose favorite things in life are spaghetti, meatballs, and open-hand slapping women in the face) spend a lot of time leaning on things, swearing, and not dying after being shot thirty times. Otherwise they are but supporting characters in a movie about bar brawls.

Catman feels like two stories clumsily patched together, as though the producer felt the film would be only be marketable to their desired audience if at least some of the characters were American. In the English dub version of the film, the Americans all speak English, but are dubbed over anyway. The person in charge of the dubbing did not bother to line up the lip movement with the dialogue, nor did they bother using the same script most of the time. Perhaps a postmodern reflection on translation and transnational cinema? Maybe. Comical? Certainly.

Catman is a wholly confusing, disturbing, and wonderful film. From its endlessly quotable one-liners (“no great shakes, I’ll take care of him”), to its terrible lighting, from the painful dubbing to the impossibly complicated plot, Catman is an hour and a half of pure, tragic fun.

–M. MacKay

Megan MacKay is a journalist, writer, and stand up comedian living in New Brunswick. She is not a strong swimmer.

Apr 062012

Over the past four decades, Gladys Swan has published six collections of short stories and two novels, Carnival for the Gods (Vintage Contemporaries Series), and Ghost Dance: A Play of Voices, nominated by LSU Press for the Pen/Faulkner Award.  Her short fiction appears in a variety of anthologies and in such literary magazines as the Kenyon Review, Sewanee Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Shenandoah, and the Ohio Review.  She is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including Prairie Schooner’s Lawrence Foundation Prize for Fiction, and a Tate Prize for Poetry from the Sewanee Review.  In addition to receiving multiple fellowships for residencies and retreats in both the visual arts and in writing, she was awarded one of the first Open Fellowships from the Lilly Endowment, for a study of Inuit art and mythology. Swan’s The Tiger’s Eye—A Collection of New and Selected Stories was published by Servinghouse Books in the fall of 2011.

To view a selection of Gladys Swan’s paintings published earlier on NC, click here. Read her wonderful short story “The Orange Bird” (from The Tiger’s Eye), click here.


Joyce J. Townsend: What prompted the publication of your latest short story collection at this point in time?

Gladys Swan:  The Tiger’s Eye is a milestone of sorts, representing forty years of work in the short story.  It serves as a retrospective, a chance to look back and see where I’ve come in this particular genre.  I hadn’t read most of the stories for years, so it was interesting to see what has held my attention, what motifs have recurred, what I’ve discovered along the path.

JJT: How were you drawn to the writing life?

Swan: I suppose at heart it’s a matter of temperament and thereby a kind of fate.  I was propelled early on by an impulse I didn’t really understand.  A need, I think, to define my experience somehow, to discover a way of looking at the world, to find some kind of orientation in a place where I was a stranger.  Then it became a fascination with what the imagination could know, a satisfaction in doing the work no matter what, after a long struggle, “a lonely impulse of delight,” to borrow a line from Yeats.

JJT: What moved you from creative writing to the visual arts?  Or did it happen the other way around?

Swan: I was drawn to the visual arts as a child.  I remember trying to paint a horse and being terribly frustrated when it didn’t come out right.  When I got to high school, I took a painting class sponsored by New Mexico Western College.  Dorothy McCrae, a wonderful artist and teacher, oversaw the class and came in at various times to work with the student instructor.  She put me in touch with my imagination.  I didn’t realize how much I owed Dorothy until later.

Although I was also trying to write, and felt great excitement about literature, I took another painting class when I attended New Mexico Western College, and I continued to sketch and paint a little as I went along.  As it began to appear that I was never going to get published, I started working in ceramics—making bowls was better than collecting typescript.  A pivotal moment for me came when I was awarded a Lilly Endowment Open Fellowship for a project in art and mythology.  I went up to Purdue and took every art course I could manage, and then I put all that aside when, all of a sudden, my writing began being published.  But I couldn’t stay away: I had spent so much time over the years in art museums that finally I couldn’t stand it any longer—I had to paint.

After I began teaching creative writing at the University of Missouri, I took art classes there.  I’ve had some fine teachers along the way, people I still spend time with, to whom I owe a great deal for their support and inspiration, among them Woody Johnson from New Mexico Western College, and Curt Stocking with whom I studied figure-drawing at Purdue.  Here in Missouri, Frank Stack, Brooke Cameron, Ben Cameron, and William Berry have been influential, and Robert Friedman and Bede Clark in ceramics.

JJT:  In what ways do you see the two creative processes affecting each other?

Swan: The visual arts engage the senses in a different way, perhaps closer to the way the mind works when rational thinking is not imposed on it.  You have a flow of images.  Art works with those images—words and definitions come later.  The process is non-linear.  Its language is color, line and mass, pattern and rhythm, light and dark.  It offers me a great refreshment to get out of words, and I love playing with color.  Attention to the act of seeing makes me observe the world more closely, its lights and shadows, its tones and variations, its people, their expressions and gestures.  Art offers a new and continuing opportunity for discovery.  I believe that is reflected in my writing.

JJT: Do you find similar patterns between writing and the visual arts emerging for you?

Swan: Patterns there are, and more.  I believe that it is very beneficial for an artist to work in another medium, whether it be music or dance, drama or painting.  There is no direct equation, but one art form influences the other in interesting and subtle ways.  You learn things about form and pattern, rhythm and emphasis.  You get another take on how you see the world.  Also, when you are learning to work in a different medium, you recognize similarities in the creative process, what stages you have to go through before you reach any kind of mastery.

JJT: When you first started out as an artist and writer, whose work most influenced you?

Swan: Strong influences shaping my mind and imagination came from the writings of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, and the works of Homer and the Greek playwrights.  I discovered Jung when his books were first translated: Psychology and Alchemy and Symbols of Transformation.  They introduced me to the idea that there was another kind of thinking beyond that of the rational mind, and it was one to be equally valued, with treasures to be gained from it: enrichment from unconscious sources, the potentials for human growth and realization, as well as insight into the dark side of human behavior.  Joseph Campbell was especially helpful in locating the patterns and stages of human experience, the truths embodied in mythology.  It was helpful to return to origins.  Those insights were certainly underscored by Dante, that great psychologist, and the work of Dostoyevski, Conrad and Hawthorne, among others.  All the writers mentioned gave me a sense of the heights literature can reach.

Probably the writer who influenced me most when I was starting to write short stories was Katherine Anne Porter.  Her stories were gems.  She set me on the path.

There were a good many artists who inspired me in the visual arts, particularly the Impressionists and early Modernists.  Curiously, as my writing has moved more in the direction of the fantastic, my painting has gone more in the direction of the abstract.  Klee, Kandinsky, Diebenkorn, and Joan Mitchell have been very important to me lately.  In watercolor, John Marin, Charles Burchfield, Georgia O’Keefe, and Keith Crown have influenced me strongly.  Keith Crown is an artist who deserves to be better known.

JJT:  What has been the best advice you received along the way and, conversely, what was the worst?

Swan: I think the best advice came from Thoreau: “Live in the direction of your dreams.”   Maybe the worst advice was embodied in the question an agent asked me with great irritation after she’d read the first fifty pages of Carnival for the Gods, “Can’t you just write a good commercial novel?”  From Frank Stack, a well-known underground cartoonist and fine painter, came the statement: “Only you can empower yourself as an artist.”  From him, I also learned not to destroy work—always a temptation—until you’ve let it sit around for a while.  That way, you have some distance and can make a better judgment about it.

JJT:  You’ve written essays, translations, poetry, prose, and various other forms.  Do you have a favored format or genre?

Swan: I thought I would live and die a short story writer since I played in that form for so many years.  But as I have made other rewarding ventures, I would say that I’m wedded to whatever form I happen to be engaged with at the moment.  Each allows a certain kind of emphasis and way to explore.  I am guided by an old aesthetic principle: vision dictates form.  The materials themselves make the suggestions emerge in the way they require.  You have to keep listening.  The novel allows a broader reach, and I appreciate its scope: with the chance to develop more characters, to give more time to social and political issues.  With poetry, I love the focus on image, the chance to engage all the resources of language, to link them to narrative and song.  The essay is rather a late development for me, and I find a satisfaction in exploring a subject through a process of thought.  I could say that the short story is my first love, since I keep coming back to it, but I enjoy the excitement of playing with form.  There’s an unfinished play still lying in the drawer . . ..  And the visual arts—that’s a whole other territory.

JJT: In retrospect, what emerges as major recurring themes in your short fiction throughout your career?

Swan: I think a major preoccupation has been the effort to determine what is meant by “experience.”  Flannery O’Connor once said something to the effect that the greatest tragedy is not to have experience.  What I think she meant is that there is considerable difference between event and experience.  At first I thought that experience meant that something of great magnitude had to occur.  Then I discovered that some people have extraordinary things happen to them, but essentially nothing much changes except the addition of a few anecdotes.  “We had the experience, but we missed the meaning,” as Eliot notes.

I believe that experience brings about a different perspective, a way of seeing and, for better or worse, a different way of being in the world.  It can awaken new potentialities for growth or bring about a shattering of illusions.  The subject of experience is complex and takes one into deep mysteries.

JJT:  What effect does change of locale have on your writing in terms of both story content and the act of writing?

Swan:  Any change of local is like traveling to a foreign country.  Some offer strong contrasts in language and people, landscape, and way of life.  So whether I’m in Maine or Missouri, New Mexico or France, there is a great deal to take in.  Locale has certainly had a great effect on the content of both my novels and my short stories.  I left New Mexico at a young age, but in a strong sense, I’ve never left.  It has been the primary territory for my imagination although other work is set in places where I’ve spent long and short periods of time.  I’ve written half a dozen stories set in Maine, where I have lived for nearly forty summers, taking in the whole ambience of the place, its landscape, the coastal region, Down East, as opposed to the central and western parts, etc.  And in Europe where I’ve spent a lot of time—Paris, Florence, Yugoslavia, Greece, Spain—I’ve found stories I need to tell.  One of my as-yet unpublished novels has sections set in Copenhagen, Venice, and Prague.  In some ways, I’ve gone the route of both James and Hawthorne in considering how the consciousness of an American is influenced from abroad.  Certain stories seem to arise from the landscape, and I am in many ways influenced by what is around me for content and for the act of writing.  A quiet place near a window that looks out on water and/or woods does very nicely.  For a number of summers the landscape in Maine was so compelling I could barely concentrate on anything else.  I just wanted to follow the light on water and in the trees—to dream.

JJT: In looking over your work, what discoveries have you made about yourself as a writer?

Swan: My first novel, Carnival for the Gods, was a complete surprise to me.  A writer friend once told me I should try writing comedy, and I just laughed.  I had no thought of moving toward the fantastic.  I thought I was a realist, of a serious disposition at that.  Then I ended up writing a comic fantasy about a small circus/carnival and the adventures they have in a mythical territory: the Seven Cities of Cibola, supposedly with roof tops of gold, such as the Spaniards were looking for when they came north to New Mexico.  They didn’t find it, but I did, inventing the cities as I went along—my first discovery that I wasn’t a realist.  I had to wrestle with the half-hatched insight that my supposed “real bent” was heading in a direction I hadn’t banked on.

JJT: You mentioned being surprised at how the circus has become a preoccupation of yours.

Swan: At first I was fascinated by carnivals, and I wanted to write about one.  I thought I’d like to travel with a carnival, but at the time it was not possible.  I was whining to a friend about this state of affairs, and she said,  “Why don’t you invent one?”  So I did—the result was Carnival for the Gods, a combination circus and carnival.  I thought I was finished with that particular world, but ten years later I found myself making notes for a series of other novels, based on characters from the first.  They were born of reading and imagination, but by the time I got to the fourth of the series, I had a strong desire to see a circus firsthand.  I called up David and Laura Balding, the producers of the Circus Flora in St. Louis, told them what I wanted to do and asked if I could be on hand. They invited me to meet with them.  I didn’t want to be just a spectator, so they gave me something to do.  I ended up pulling the back curtain for all their performances in St. Louis that season, thereby seeing what went on backstage.  Later they invited me to do the same during their season in Phoenix, so I went out there as well.

It was a wonderful experience.  I spent time meeting and talking to various performers—the Flying Walendas, the Cossack riders, the clowns, the expert juggler they had, Flora-the-elephant’s handler, and others.  Being with that group of dedicated artists was a real education.  I learned things I could never have learned otherwise and gained an appreciation for them beyond what I already had.  In the Arizona performance, I was given a small part: wearing a cloak and monster face, I had to run into the ring with two other performers, all of us carrying various signs which we waved in front of the crowd. Mine said,  “Don’t talk to the animals.”

I thought I had finished the sequence with the fourth novel, Down to Earth, but another character, Amazing Grace, had to have her story told as well.  I’m in the midst of that novel now—Dancing with Snakes.

The whole experience was so important to me that it affected more than the novels I’ve been working on.  I wrote a long poem entitled, “The Dream of Circus,” and gave a copy to the performers.  “The Dream of Circus” was published in the Sewanee Review and awarded their Tate Prize for Poetry.

JJT: Have your short stories followed the same trajectory into fantasy?

Swan: My short fiction pretty much kept its feet on the ground until I came to The Tiger’s Eye, inspired when I heard about a man who held conversations with a tiger in England’s Bristol Zoo.  Recent stories have moved more and more in unexpected directions.  My work has as its basis actual events, which take off from there towards other dimensions.

Perhaps I have simply fulfilled a certain suggestion in my work that I recorded a number of years ago: “My stories seem to be a kind of dreaming awake.  Impressions float along the surface of consciousness in a coherent but diffuse manner—the thinking is associative, digressive, imagistic.  The event becomes a cluster of impressions that work the same way an image or symbol does in a poem.  The cumulative effect of these images is a meaning that is hinted at but not stated.  There is change, usually the coming of awareness.  I suppose that my stories are the reflection of a singularly untidy mind—there is an order in my work, arising from diffuseness, not imposed on it.”

I think that probably characterizes a good deal of what I’ve done and why perhaps, under the influence of Yeats and Stevens, Bachelard, Toni Morrison, Garcia Marquez and others, I’ve been exploring what kind of knowledge can be apprehended through the imagination.

JJT: How would you challenge writing students to better their craft?

Swan:  Mainly to read and learn from really good work, and to explore the tradition to reach a sense of where they came from.  Though it’s important to read one’s contemporaries, I think it’s a mistake to spend all one’s time with them.  A lot of books speak only to a particular moment and then become dated.  Of course if your aim is simply to produce a best seller, that’s another matter and takes some study of what seems to be important to the culture at a given time.

JJT: What moods, thoughts, and impressions do you hope your stories leave with readers?

Swan: A writer creates a world, whether it’s Bernard Malamud’s Lower Ease Side or Flannery O’Conner’s Georgia, and the reader is being invited to enter it, meet the inhabitants, enter their experience with its predicaments and opportunities.  All good writers speak to a dimension of our experience and illuminate it in some way.  Malamud and O’Connor explore the implications of a certain religious identity; Philip Roth goes to great depths in presenting characters entwined in the political and social realities at certain moments of our history.  We have Nadine Gordimer’s South Africa, and so forth.  All of them give us a sense of the triumphs and deficiencies of the human condition.

I hope that my fiction does the same, that it touches some aspect of a reader’s experience and leaves the reader with a sense of recognition and aesthetic satisfaction, a feeling of having been somewhere and that the trip was worth it.  I’d like to leave behind a sense that there’s a language different from the Newspeak that we meet on a daily basis, that there is a sensual and emotional depth to our experience, a dreaming self that is worthy of our attention.  That within us are ways of valuing our experience that the culture doesn’t emphasize.

JJT: Do you prefer working in certain environments, surrounded by talisman-type objects, say, or wearing certain clothing?

Swan: I like to work alone in a quiet place.  Except on one occasion, I’ve not gone in for talismans or particular behavior, but that one occasion was quite extraordinary.  I was in Prague, in 1988, right when everyone was celebrating the election of Vazclav Havel.   Except for foreign tourists, the square had been deserted before.  Now there were crowds on Wencelas Square, and music everywhere, of all kinds.  I went on an excursion with a woman who wanted to show me her village, which she hadn’t been back to for years.  I didn’t know this when we started off through the fields, but finally it was clear that we were lost; she didn’t know the way.  After walking a stretch, we finally came to an abandoned quarry, with translucent stones of various colors in the ground—black, green transparent, pink, blue.  It was a great discovery.  We went around like a couple of kids gathering them up.  I took home a bagful.

I was working on a novel that had to do with an American woman who comes to an understanding of the suffering of Europeans during the Hitler-Stalin era, and each morning I’d make an arrangement of the stones, working with them until the pattern satisfied me.  Only then could I begin work on the book.  Sometimes, I left the stones where they were for several days, but then I’d have to make another arrangement.  I did this until the book was finished.  Then I put them away, and that was that.

JJT:  How do you usually edit your work?

Swan:  I write draft after draft and after it’s fine-tuned, I may send it to a friend to read.  Then I consider any suggestions and go back to it.

JJT: You’ve said that except for a six-week class in creative writing, you learned the craft through practice, and by reading.  What would be your advice to someone who is considering an MFA-type program?

Swan: There are many good programs, with some excellent writers and teachers, so I think it’s a matter of defining your priorities and going after the program that best provides for you.  Do you need financial support, for instance, and how much?  Do you want to spend a winter navel-deep in snow, or do you have a liking for mountains or the desert?  These things figure in along with everything else.  What happens to the graduates of a particular program?  Can they earn a living?  I think you learn as much from your colleagues as you do from your instructors.  Finally, whether you’re in a program or doing the job on your own, you have to educate yourself.  I didn’t come through any formal training program and I didn’t know any writers.  If the choice had been open, I’d have done things differently.  On my own, I was a very slow learner, and perhaps a degree might have saved me from some mistakes, might have let me make better use of my time.  Sometimes, though, I think I might have been unteachable.

JJT:  What’s next for you?  Are there as-yet-unexplored aspects of your work that you have a yen to discover?

Swan:  My major work has been the sequence of five novels, beginning with Carnival for the Gods.  I hope to complete the final one this summer.  I might like to do a series of poems with paintings or even music.  I have a strong yearning to do something with music, but I’m not sure I can get everything into one lifetime.

JJT: Where does the bulk of your work stand in relation to contemporary culture and politics?

Swan: For the most part I haven’t taken a political stance, except in Ceremony of Innocence, a novel that is yet to be published, although one section of it appeared in the Beloit Fiction Journal and another section in The Literary Review.   Ceremony of Innocence is an attempt to explore the fragmentation of personality that occurs under despotism.  But I do consider my work strongly political in that a writer can’t avoid revealing the values she stands for and which, because they affect the individual, affect the society, the polis.  There is a strong connection to the natural world implicit in my work.  I see nature as the basis for all value.  A feeling that there is an underlying order that needs our respect if we’re not to be destroyed.  I think a value system has to grow out of the recognition that we are a part of nature and deeply connected to all life.  We’re doing terrible things at the moment, beginning with our food, the chemicals we use, the willingness to sacrifice the landscape and the purity of air and water to mining interests and oil production, as well as to untrammeled development.  I deplore the waste embodied in our endless consumerism, our worship of money—the triumph of the Ayn Rand philosophy.  At what price are we producing a generation of technical experts and financial wizards?  What kind of mental and spiritual life are we creating with our devouring need to be entertained by sit-coms, reality shows, sports heroes, rock stars, and the like—so many passive entertainments?  Although we have great energy and tremendous human potential, these are the things I find deeply troubling.  I feel that life is the great miracle, terribly precious, and I’m strongly in favor of what will foster it.  I hope that is revealed in my work.

Joyce J. Townsend holds a Master’s in Social Services Administration from Case Western Reserve University. Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction has appeared in a variety of literary journals and newspapers.  In 2009 she received a fellowship from the Elizabeth George Foundation for a novel. A chronicle of her family’s involvement in the alternative school movement of the 1960s and 70s appears in Three Rs and the Other F Word—FREEDOM! (Excerpts appear on WebdelSol.)  She narrates for The National Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and is a regular reviewer for the Library Journal.

Apr 052012

The best novels are like dreams. They come out of the silence of the page like a dream. They structure themselves like dreams, that is, there are clear ways in which the structure of dreams parallels the structure of novels. Like dreams, novels use image patterning as a device for suggesting meaning: image repetition, association, juxtaposition, and splintering (Viktor Shklovsky’s term for the branching pattern created by a repeating image and its associated or split-off elements which also repeat). Like dreams, novels are available to interpretation; the best novels have a central luminous mystery at their core which tempts generations upon generations of critics and readers to find new structures and meanings beyond the surface of the words. And like dreams, novels are built around (and this is explicable in only the vaguest of terms) the recurrence or insistence of desire which, in order to generate plot, must be resisted; the locus or arena of desire and resistance appears again and again with obsessive regularity in novels, an obsessive regularity which, in real life, would seem eccentric if not pathological. In novels, character is perversion, and the novel returns again and again to the animating desire which it must resist to the bitter end or even beyond the end of the words on the page.

—from “Novels and Dreams,” an essay by Douglas Glover in Attack of the Copula Spiders

The Greeks called their novels tales of suffering for love. If they weren’t about suffering for love, they wouldn’t be tales. A story consists of someone wanting something and having trouble getting it. There are no stories about people who start out happy and contented, remain happy and contented throughout, and end up happy and contented. Imagine the phrase “tales of not-suffering for love” or “tales of having fun for love” or “tales of finding pleasure for love.” The difference between pornography and literature is that in pornography everyone has orgasms all the time. There is no gap between desire and consummation. In literature there is always an element of frustration, displacement, delay and incompleteness (even if someone does eventually manage to have an orgasm). Don Quixote is the quintessential novel because it’s about a man in love with a woman who doesn’t exist. At the outset, Cervantes invents the limiting case.

—from The Enamoured Knight

Repetition, as I have said, is also a pattern. But it is a pattern of a different order, perhaps the pattern of patterns. To me, it is the heart of the mystery of art, of novel-writing. Without it, the novel becomes a strung-out plot summary. I have tried to think out why repetition is appealing, why it is aesthetically pleasing as a pure thing. I think there are two reasons, or sorts of reasons. The first is essentially conservative–repetition is allied to memory, to coherence and verisimilitude. The second is biological or procreative or sexual. Repetition creates rhythm which on a biological level is pleasurable in itself, the beating of our hearts, the combers rolling up on a beach, the motion of love. This is the sort of thing Lyotard is talking about when he writes about “intensities” or patterns of intensities in his book Économie Libidinal, or what the Spaniard Madariaga meant when he talked about the “waves of energy” in Tirso de Molina’s El Burlador de Seville.

—from “The Novel as a Poem” in Notes Home from a Prodigal Son


Here is the performance version of “How to Write a Novel,” the first essay in my new book Attack of the Copula Spiders. I place it here for instructional purposes, also so that I can include it in our growing trove of craft and structure advice The Numéro Cinq Literary Craft Book, which you all should consult from time to time. I gave this talk as part of the Craftwork series at The Center for Fiction in New York, March 14, 2o12.

It’s important to note that “How to Write a Novel” is a fairly stripped down version of the years of thought I have given to writing novels (and stories and essays and, yes, even poems). If you want to get the whole picture to this point, you should read also “The Novel as a Poem” in Notes Home from a Prodigal Son. That book also contains essays on novels by Leonard Cohen, Christa Wolf, Hubert Aquin, and Margaret Atwood, plus an essay on point of view and my pride and joy “Gertrude, or the Postmodern Novel.”

Then you would need to read my book on Cervantes The Enamoured Knight. The first section of the book, “Recovering the Text: Technical and Analytical,” provides a re-reading of Don Quixote and preps you for the sections to follow.  The second section, “Don Quixote and Novel Form,” gives a history of the development of novel form, sorts out the rather confusing array of definitions offered by theorists, and then discusses a set of primary structures: plot, subplot, character grouping and gradation, and novel memory devices (which I have not really touched on elsewhere). The third section, “Night Thoughts of an Insomniac Reader, or Thematic Meditations,” demonstrates how the form itself predisposes the novel to a thematic “basket” of ubiquitous themes which appear in writers as diverse as Joseph Conrad, Cervantes, Jane Austen, and Alice Munro (to name four that come into the discussion).

Finally, in Attack of the Copula Spiders you’ll find not only “How to Write a Novel” (the complete text with sundry examples) but also analyses of novels by Juan Rulfo, Thomas Bernhard, Leon Rooke, and Cees Nooteboom as well as an essay on endings and a meditation on novels and history.

Unfortunately, foresight has been lacking. I haven’t managed to collect all of this material in one place (and that’s mostly because I have been sorting out these ideas for years, decades, often previewing them as lectures at Vermont College of Fine Arts where I teach in the low-residency MFA in Writing program). But here now you have a basic sense of where to find it all.


Apr 042012

Robert Vivian


Someone once said to Robert Vivian that real writers write novels, not essays, fighting words that in part inspired this wonderfully personal essay on essays by my indefatigable and otherwise gentle friend and colleague (at Vermont College of Fine Arts) who herein describes his own turn to the essay many years ago in a London cemetery when he was 22. Robert Vivian is a Nebraska native (now living in Michigan where he teaches at Alma College), and a former baseball player (sorry, I DO have to keep mentioning this because it is fascinating—Nebraska and baseball: some echo of the American epic in those words). He is a prolific writer of superb meditative essays and a fine novelist, also a playwright and poet. Of the second novel in his The Tall Grass Trilogy, I wrote: “Robert Vivian’s Lamb Bright Saviors is a brave and profoundly moving novel of faith and forgiveness. A closely-observed novel of voices, it speaks the tongues of America’s impoverished underbelly and reveals, amid the squalor, mystery, goodness and salvation.” He is the author of The Tall Grass Trilogy (The Mover Of Bones, Lamb Bright Saviors, and Another Burning Kingdom) and the essay collections Cold Snap As Yearning and The Least Cricket Of Evening. His next novel, Water And Abandon, will be out this fall. Earlier on these pages, I published is “Thoughts on the Meditative Essay.”



Out beyond ideas of right and wrong doing, there is a field.
I will meet you there.    
— Rumi

Many years ago I turned to essay writing in a most fundamental and organic way, like some human kind of turning plant whose leaves and petals reached out for the miraculous nourishment of photosynthesis, even though I wasn’t quite aware of it at the time. I was 22 and abroad in London for the first time away from my native state of Nebraska, volunteering at Highgate Cemetery to clean headstones under the guidance of a wise and proper old English lady named Edith. One of my American professors there required that we keep an extensive journal of our time abroad, and so I was doing my part to meet this requirement when a subtle but ultimately life-altering thing happened that I only realize fully now with the benefit of hindsight: I found that having to write about what I saw, thought, felt and experienced or observed without apology or reservation on this first trip out of America was oddly satisfying and absorbing, so much so that I began to care about this kind of writing in a way I never had before; that is, I wanted and was even grateful to do these assignments, and when my professor handed these writings back, I saw that he had responded mostly favorably to them. He liked the way I tried to describe the cemetery and kindly, old Edith and how they registered in my awareness, and no one had ever really communicated such sentiments about my writing ability before this time.

Among the snowdrops and the damp, chilly air of Highgate Cemetery and London, I was reborn, but again I didn’t quite realize it then, for it was the first time someone had ever taken my humble observations about the world at all seriously. About a year before the trip to London I was not what you would call a promising or hardly stellar student, but I had—cliché of cliché’s—been gob smacked one day sitting in a course on the Romantic poets taught by a rather glamorous and beautiful professor and had fallen in love with poetry or with her, and it scarcely mattered which it was. That spark had led to the visit to London and my deepening desire to become a writer as I tried to write poems and prose about what I was observing in England as a wide-eyed visitor. Both professors did me an incalculable service as a human being and incipient writer, and I will forever be grateful to them for catalyzing in me a love of language along with the frame-work to practice at it—in the case of extensive journal-writing—as I tried to make sense out of the English way of life around me. After London I stopped writing essays but turned to writing poetry and then to plays, and it would be several years before I went back to essays as a reprieve from the oftentimes bleak and incomprehensible plays I had hung my hat on at the time.

I mention all this as a prelude to the subject of creative nonfiction today as I wish to give you all some slight idea of how I ended up as a practitioner of the form, or as one of the characters in Edward Albee’s “Zoo Story” says, “Sometimes you have to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly.” I would usually resort to writing essays as a reprieve from other forms only to turn to them more often and with greater and deeper dearness that continues to this day. Annie Dillard once wrote that “Essays can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it,” and I heartily agree: writing those first essays back in London, I sought to make sense of what I was seeing and experiencing, and how a woman like Edith could touch me so profoundly and forever by her dignity and kindness as reflected in her deeply wrinkled face whose every line and furrow bespoke years of living and suffering along with a quiet, ineffable joy. I was pretty naïve and open then, though I still believe that writing essays comes primarily out of a sense of asking and wondering about people and things and speculating on their meaning and significance, including the life that was given to me to live. I wanted to bring up all the aforementioned as an apology of sorts (or maybe species of bemusement is a better way to put it) for my lack of an utter staunch or definitive stand for what creative nonfiction is or purports to be or any pleading stance on this contested form or why it is so often bedeviled as a genre and quite controversial, more so, perhaps, than any other literary genre.

We know—etymologically speaking—that poets make poems, that fiction writers invent narratives, that playwrights work on plays and drama, and that essayists try or attempt to articulate through crafted language to arrive at some truth or observation about their own experiences. We know this because the deep history and definitions of these words tell us so. And yet—for good and solid reasons—many people are a little troubled or even put off at the very label of creative nonfiction: How can one be creative with something that is supposed to be factual and true? And why is nonfiction the only genre defined as much by what it isn’t than by what it is? Imagine for a moment genres like non-poetry, non-drama: How could such hypothetical genres hold their heads up or defend their integrity, let alone be taken seriously?

But if you if feel and believe, as I do, that writing about what a person actually sees, feels, and experiences as a human being in this world is relevant, important, sometimes even revelatory as a way to make sense of oneself and others and that this is inherently worth doing, like James Baldwin does in “Stranger in the Village,” chronicling his time in a remote Swiss village writing his first novel Go Tell It On The Mountain and reflecting on the fact that he was the first person of color to ever visit this remote place, or E.B. White in “Once More To The Lake” and his meditation on his own mortality vis-à-vis observing his son’s visit to the lake and the memory of his dead father that hovers over him with a haunting sense of déjà vu and his very own doppelganger, or what Joan Didion does in The Year Of Magical Thinking, articulating and somehow trying to come to terms with her profound grief in the face of her husband’s death and daughter’s life-threatening illness along with countless other moving examples of nonfiction then maybe, just maybe we need not be so unduly troubled by the controversies surrounding CNF and writers like John D’Agata and his books About A Mountain and The Lifespan Of A Fact or James Frey and his A Million Little Pieces or even Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood who admitted in the writing of this book that he was “seeking truth but not necessarily accuracy.” All of the writers I mentioned write essays or kinds of creative nonfiction (or did), and regardless of one’s opinion on the merit of their work or stated credos, they all to a person pay keen attention to the style and impact of their prose just as much as any writer does in any genre, and it is this same artistic emphasis that makes creative nonfiction literary.

Not everyone agrees on this, and to my mind, this is okay: as Yeats instructs us, the most important arguments we ever have are with ourselves. But I remember a good friend in graduate school, a mentor of sorts and one of the most profoundly read people I’ve ever met, tell me one day with great passion and even vehemence, “Bob, real writers write novels, not essays”—a seething pronouncement he leveled at me when I mentioned to him how much I was enjoying teaching Annie Dillard’s Teaching A Stone To Talk. His comment didn’t offend me very much, because the more I read of Dillard in this particular book and the more I tried to teach it, the more I found myself trying to write essays like her, and I found the whole process absorbing and rewarding, joyful even, despite my friend’s scathing disavowal. But the bugaboos surrounding creative nonfiction are not so easily dispatched, especially considering the fact that Justin Beiber has written a memoir: because there will always be writers who do not think facts are sacrosanct in nonfiction, who believe facts can be manipulated like so much clay for a desired effect. John D’Agata, for example, uses 34 for the number of strip clubs in Las Vegas in one of his essays when he knew the actual number to be 31, claiming that 34 is somehow more interesting and artistically pleasing than 31: I don’t quite see or understand his aesthetic argument here, but I do see how this kind of conscious manipulation might offend, anger, or disappoint readers and thus further stain and besmirch the genre of creative nonfiction and call into question its status as a serious art form.

In writing essays myself, by the way, I try to be as factually accurate as possible because I don’t see that very much can be gained by consciously manipulating them; I don’t view them as obstacles or enemies but just another element that can be every bit as mysterious as the imagination and sometimes even more so. I have no beef with the fact that there are 31 strip clubs in Las Vegas anymore than I care overmuch that I had a Subway sandwich for lunch and not lobster bisque. I’m much more interested—infinitely so—in how or why it is that the essays of James Baldwin, for example, an African-American writer who grew up in Harlem, could speak so personally and movingly to me as a young white man growing up Omaha as if in the act of reading his work we had somehow swapped souls. When I read “Notes Of A Native Son”back in Omaha shortly before leaving for England (one year, it seemed, and one class turned me forever in the direction of literature) I knew what he was writing about expressed a deep and troubling truth about living in America, that the color of one’s skin then and now profoundly influences how one is viewed, but I also came to know through Baldwin that despite the outer circumstances and backgrounds that we were somehow also spiritual brothers in a way and that he had so much to teach me about myself and others even as he was writing about his own experiences.

Somehow it was the intimacy of Baldwin reflecting on his own life and daring to be so honest about it that instilled in me a sense of great dignity and nobility of spirit, which I think are the hallmarks of what the best essays and forms of creative nonfiction can confer every bit as powerfully as any poem, novel, or play. I feel very strongly about this because I’ve worked and published in all the genres and I’ve taught and studied all of them also, and I’m quietly but firmly convinced that the “I” in a serious essay or memoir is not a character or simulacrum of the author but her or his truest self or essence, a claim I understand is not always true in some cases, though those same some examples may prove the rule, not the exception. The essay as a form has been around at least 300 years or so in the Essais of Michel de Montaigne, and some contend the form is even older than that: only the acronym creative nonfiction is new or recent, along with perhaps some of its subgenres like immersion essay, though even this is debatable. So in many crucial ways the controversies surrounding the form do not in any way detract from the deep currents of its tradition, which feels almost scandalous to admit out loud.

For me, the best essays function as places of intimate encounter as we get to know the “I,” the writer at a very deep level even as we come to a better understanding of ourselves. Come with me now to a passage from Thomas Merton’s beautiful book When The Trees Say Nothing: “Again, sense of the importance, the urgency of seeing, fully aware, experiencing what is here… Clear realization that I must begin with these first elements. That it is absurd to inquire after my function in the world, or whether I have one, as long as I am not first of all alive and awake. And if that, and no more, is my job (for it is certainly every man’s job), then I am grateful for it. The vanity of all false missions, when no one is sent. All the universal outcry of people who have not been told to cry out, but who are driven to this noise by their fear, their lack of what is right in front of their noses.” I love this passage, and return to it often; it comes from first person nonfiction prose, and Merton did not even intend to publish the musings in this book. This is one man, one person alive and awake in the world, commenting on his deepest convictions and felt truths in order to make sense of something for himself, and, by extension, to reveal these truths for others like myself, even if he did not intend to accomplish this. This is the unique and personal power of nonfiction prose, for Merton is utterly vulnerable and authentic here on the page for anyone who would read and absorb these words.

That is why my evolving metaphor for the personal essay is an open field where reader and writer encounter each other; like Rumi instructs in his poem, there is a world beyond good and bad doings, and it’s possible to meet someone there. This is what the best of creative nonfiction has to teach or by way of invitation, to meet the “I” of nonfiction prose in the field of an essay only to realize, if the work is real and true, that you are always meeting yourself in the guise of another, and that this same paradoxical encounter is one of the hopeful human lights of this world.

—Robert Vivian


ROBERT VIVIAN’s first book, Cold Snap As Yearning, won the Society of Midland Authors Award in Nonfiction and the Nebraska Center for the Book in 2002. His first novel, The Mover Of Bones, was published in 2006 and is Part I of The Tall Grass Trilogy. Part II, Lamb Bright Saviors, was recently published–and Part III, Another Burning Kingdom, will be published in 2011. His next collection of essays, The Least Cricket Of Evening, will also be published in 2011. His most recent novel, Water And Abandon, will be published in 2012; and he’s just completed another novel, The Long Fall To Dirt Heaven. He also writes plays, over twenty of which have been produced in NYC. Many of his monologues have been published in Best Men’s Stage Monologues and Best Women’s Stage Monologues. His most recent foray into playwriting was an adaptation of Ibsen’s Ghosts that premiered at Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo in 2006. His stories, poems, and essays have been published in Harper’s, Georgia Review, Ecotone, Numéro Cinq, Creative Non!fiction, Glimmer Train, and dozens of others. He is Associate Professor of English at Alma College in Michigan and a member of the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Apr 032012

Marilyn McCabe herein presents trenchant meditations on the mysterious and heart-rending duality (good and evil) of the human soul (think: Proust/Idi Amin). Marilyn is an old friend, a poet, translator, singer, and cross-country skier from Saratoga Springs. She is pretty much a regular contributor to these pages. See especially her translations of Rilke, Éluard, Silvestre, and Apollinaire (the last three put to music—sung in this instance by the uber-talented Ms. McCabe). These poems come from Marilyn’s brand new book Perpetual Motion, just out with The Word Works (2012).





There’s a baby
in the crisped litter
of a roadside wood today, made pale
and lovely by an October snow.
Then even the skin is brittle.

It’s never the big thing
but the fine and permeative that destroys
often beautifully. How are we a thing that hates
and is so hard to hate?

There’s a boy
tucks a note into the pocket
of a coat he’s sending a stranger, saying
“Have a good winter. Please write back.”

A branch breaks, a lamp flickers,
the dog digs at a flash of something
paler than snow. A boy uncrinkles a note.
What happens next?



In the zoo’s amphibious tanks’ blueglowcurved
half hidden things dark dim dark dim

Kierkegaard said that we are two
selves divided, one divine, one sullied
by its reflection in the group;

I look up no one I recognizeI am
eight years old and my group has disappeared

to try to see the self in others
is despair, but despair is the beginning
of the shadowed path toward God.

Run to the open doors run through the bucking storm
where’s my group I cry no one no self to find myself

And who are we without each other,
sweat smelling, shuffling,
God so far away and flickering?
dark dim dark dim dark


Wasp Nest   
after Vallejo

Professor of nesting, teach us to adhere,
to mongrel, to creep in purpose, to suspend
with aplomb and be the center of desirous flying,
the center of love.

Rector of eaves, teach us to look down backwards
at the angry citizens always wanting entry, to refuse
the attentions of sky by hiding well
and shouldering the cloak of architecture.

Technician of wonder, teach us to travel by mud,
to house in humility, hum
without sound. We make you from our bodies
but you are more than we will ever be.
You build us to build you to build us to build you
in buildings you may outlast.

Professor of such little beauty.
Rector of refusal.
Technician of this short time.

—Marilyn McCabe


Marilyn McCabe’s book of poetry Perpetual Motion was chosen by judge Gray Jacobik to be published as part of the Hilary Tham Capital Collection by The Word Works in 2012, and her chapbook Rugged Means of Grace was published by Finishing Line Press, 2011. She is a regular contributor of poetry book reviews for Connotation Press, and her poetry has appeared in print and online in such magazines as Nimrod, Painted Bride Quarterly, Numéro Cinq, and the Cortland Review.

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.