Jul 312012

Last year Laura Von Rosk got the chance of a lifetime to accompany a scientific expedition to the icy wilds of Antarctica where she assisted at dive holes (the research involved diving under the ice), watched seals, hiked the glaciers and took pictures. She sent Numéro Cinq two lovely photo-and-text pieces on her time at the bottom of the world — “What It’s Like Living Here in Antarctica” and “More Adventures at the Bottom of the World.” A landscape painter by vocation, Laura has since produced a magnificent body of paintings based on her trip. Some of these pictures are currently on display at the Clement Art Gallery in Troy, New York, (July 27 to August 27). NC readers have a unique opportunity here to  compare pre- and post-Antarctica paintings, to see how a painter brings her own set of formal concerns and passions to a new landscape. Also you can look at Laura’s photos and see how the land forms of Antarctica transformed under her brush. More of the Antarctica paintings can be found at Laura’s own web page.



Untitled (pressure ridges), oil on wood, 12″ x 12″.


Untitled (dive hole study 2), oil on mylar, 17.5″ x 9″.


Blue Glacier, oil on wood, 12″ x 12″.


Sea Ice, oil on wood, 12″ x 12″.


Moat Melt, oil on wood, 12″ x 12″.

— Laura Von Rosk


Laura Von Rosk lives with her dog Molly on a lagoon just outside Schroon Lake, New York. She curates the Courthouse Gallery at the Lake George Arts Project, a gallery dedicated to the experimental and the avant garde.

Jul 302012

I first made Billie Livingston‘s acquaintance last spring when I sat on the jury for the Danuta Gleed Literary Prize. Billie won. This is what the jury said about her story collection Greedy Little Eyes: “In this collection the writer’s eyes are wide open, taking in the world and then reflecting it in all its strangeness and beauty. She pushes edges, teeters on brinks, creating the exhilaration that comes only with taking risks. Her characters are real people in a real world who achieve break-out velocity and recreate themselves by signal acts of courage and self-definition. Frequently, her plots hinge on a demand for justice in a world clouded with calculation and evasion, resulting in a collection as strong in content as it is in style.”

Now, prolific soul that she is, Billie is back with a brash, new novel, One Good Hustle (just published by Random House, Canada), the story of Sammie Bell, a teenage girl with a peculiar problem — her mother is a con artist. Her father was a con artist, too, but he has disappeared, his place taken by yet another con man named Freddy. Sammie lives in a seedy, lost world built on taking advantage of human weakness and greed, definitely not the vaguely glamorous world of that Paul Newman/Robert Redford movie The Sting which somehow managed to make the viewer forget, momentarily, how sleazy, perilous and inefficient the life of a con artist can be. (Isn’t getting a job easier?) Sammie is just beginning to see her mother’s career in the light of a nascent conscience. Her conflict is moral. What we have in the following excerpt is a series of scenes in which the mother drags Sammie to Las Vegas, tapes up her breasts, and makes her pose as an innocent 7th Grader — her mask of innocence meant to reassure the mark. Sammie, in the world but not of it, so to speak, goes along but observes acutely the diminished universe her mother inhabits, her observations signalling the reader that she might just survive her terrible parenting.



Fat Freddy is a fence who used to work with Marlene and my dad back when we were a family. After Sam was out of the picture, Fat Freddy weaseled in close to Marlene. I’m not crazy about Freddy. I was happier when he was out of our world, even though she and Freddy used to make pretty good coin together when they ran the Birthday Girl Scam.

It worked like this. Marlene would sit at the bar in a hotel lounge. She’d order herself a drink and ask the bartender his name. Flashing some cash around (“Can you break a hundred?”), she’d say that it was her birthday. Then she’d confide that her boyfriend let her pick out her own present and she’d hold out her arm to show off her new diamond bracelet.

The bartender might say, “Whoa, what’d that run the poor bastard?” She would scrunch up her nose when she whispered, “Six thousand, two hundred, and twenty-five dollars!

Meanwhile, she’d actually bought it for six bucks off some street vendor.

When she finished her drink, she’d gather up her things and surreptitiously drop the bracelet under the bar stool. A few minutes later, Fat Freddy (it used to be my father) would walk in and take the seat Marlene had just left. Not long after that, Marlene would phone the bar, all frantic. The bartender would look for the bracelet. Freddy would move his foot—“You mean this?”

Freddy wouldn’t hand the bracelet over. He’d just eyeball it and maybe whistle. “Ask if there’s a reward,” he’d say to the bartender.

On the phone, Marlene would cry. I watched her do it, watched her cradle the receiver as she pushed out tears, even though no one could see her. “I have to get that bracelet back.

Please,” she’d beg. “Tell him I’ll give him a thousand dollars. Cash.” Nearly every time, the bartender would hang up and haggle. He’d offer Freddy fifty bucks, imagining he’d pocket the difference when Marlene showed up with the thousand.

Freddy would laugh. “Forget it, man.” He’d pocket the bracelet. “I gotta get goin.’”

The bartender would get anxious then, and Freddy could usually get him to fork over anywhere from two hundred to four hundred bucks. One time, he got five hundred.

Marlene said there was nothing wrong with a hustle like that because if the bartender hadn’t been such a lying, cheating dirtbag in the first place, he’d never have given any money to Freddy. I always wondered about that reasoning, though. What if the bartender wasn’t looking to pocket the difference? What if he was trying to help Marlene, the damsel in distress—save her from having to pay so much to the creepy guy holding her bracelet hostage? How could she know for sure?

But Marlene and Freddy’s business partnership eventually soured. Fat Freddy had a major crush on Marlene. Something happened—I don’t know what, but she made it clear that she wasn’t into him. Freddy couldn’t handle the rejection. He started to become undependable, standing her up when they had work planned. He’d claim she had her dates mixed up, but Freddy was full of shit and Marlene knew it.

Her One-Woman Hotel Hustle was born when she and Freddy were on hiatus.

When I was thirteen, I could still pass for a ten-year-old.

I haven’t got much up top even now but three years ago I was positively infantile. And Marlene had it in her head that she could pass me off as a little girl. Having a little girl, she figured, upped the ante as far as us being needy.

Marlene often drove us over the border into the States.

Sometimes she’d do the little resort towns on the coast or maybe she’d hit Seattle, or Tacoma, or Portland. Now and then, she’d work downtown in Vancouver since, she reasoned, the marks would be from out of town.

If it was a big urban hotel, Marlene would sit in the lounge wearing her Chanel suit—this slim ivory number that managed to look very classy while still showing off her shape. She kept her ankles crossed and out to the side. Some guy once told Marlene that she had well-turned ankles, so she believed they were one of her most excellent features.

She’d have a suitcase beside her chair, a weepy look on her face and a tissue in hand to wipe her eyes.

Usually it went like this: A man would walk by, pause and ask if she was all right. Marlene would nod that she was. Then her face would crumple.

“You want to talk about it? I’m a good listener.”

She’d shake her head but start to bawl her eyes out. The man would almost always sit down and try to get her to talk
about it.

She had come to town with her husband, Marlene would say. “We drove here from Calgary. He was being so strange the last couple of days. I decided to give him some time on his own.”

But, she said, while she was trying on a new dress in a shop, her purse was stolen. Right from under the dressing-room door.

Then she returned to the hotel room only to discover that her husband and all of his belongings were gone. There was a note on the pillow: It was over. He’d fallen in love. To add insult to injury, the other woman was her best friend. Marlene’s husband had not only checked out, he’d left in the rental car.

“How could he do this to me?”

The usual questions: “Have you tried calling your family?”

“Do you have any friends in town?”

Marlene had answers for everything.

“Listen,” she’d say. “Is there any way that you—I could wire you the money as soon as I got home.” She’d drop her head in her hands and sob.

Maybe it was her acting skills, maybe it was the rich-lady Chanel suit, but usually she could get two or three hundred dollars out of these marks.

Except this time. In Marlene’s third hotel lounge of the day, the guy suggested that she might spend some time with him in his room. “How does a hundred sound?”


“Do I look a whore?” Marlene bellowed at me later in our living room. She stood with her hands on hips, staring at me. “A piddling hundred-dollar-hooker?”

I was on the couch. “Why don’t you just go back to doing the Birthday Girl?”

“I need a partner for that.”

“Call stupid Freddy, then.”

“I don’t feel like dealing with stupid Freddy’s hard-on every time I want to make a few bucks.”

Gross! I need to boil my eardrums after that.”

“This is a Chanel suit,” Marlene pointed out. She had bought it a few months earlier from Freddy. Marlene got some screamin’ deals on designer wear from Freddy. “Is there anything about this outfit that says hooker?”

I rolled my eyes. “The guy was a perv. Forget it. God!

She walked to the window. “Should’ve thrown a horse tranquilizer in his drink and rolled the dumb bastard while he slept.” She turned around and stared at me, her face blank. “Some of the girls who buy from Freddy make a pretty good living that way, you know.”

“Mom.” I shook my head at her. “That’s just skeevy.”

“What’s so skeevy about it? These guys are blowing money on sex, booze, gambling—all kinds of crap. Why shouldn’t they pay me for my time? I’m an interesting conversationalist with interesting opinions. It would be a consulting fee.”

I stared at her. “What the hell happened to you can’t cheat an honest man? Until you give him knockout drugs?”

“You think it’s honest to tell a woman in trouble that you’ll help her out if she puts out?”

I just let that one lay there.

A week later, Marlene asked me if I wanted to go to Las Vegas for the weekend.

“I can’t. Drew invited me on that youth group thing.

Remember? Everyone’s going out on sailboats.”

Her face went sour. “Sailboats? Some Christians. I thought it was easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than a rich guy to get into heaven.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Listen, kiddo,” she said. “They’ve got Jesus—I need you.”

Along with boobs and body hair, I was starting to get a bug up my butt about the kind of hustles that worked best when the mark believed he was doing the right thing. Marlene figured this sudden conscience of mine was the direct result of hanging out with those holier-than-thou sons-of-bitches at the church.

And maybe it was. I liked those kids. I liked their lives. So I hardly ever came along any more for the hotel games.


In the cab from the airport to Caesars Palace, I looked out the window as the last of the sun hit the crummy old neon signs.

“It’s gross here. They make it look so great on TV.”

“Daylight doesn’t become it,” Marlene said. “It’s an inside town. People come here to gamble.”

“It’s a hole.

In the hotel room, Marlene opened her suitcase on the bed.

She took out a pale yellow dress that looked as if it were meant for a large toddler. “Ta-da. Your new frock, madam.”

“I’m not wearing that. The hair’s bad enough.”

“What’s wrong with your haircut? It’s adorable. You look like Dorothy Hamill.”

Great.” I fell back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. “I look like a skating buttercup. I’m fourteen. Why can’t I just be fourteen?”

“Having an innocent child is part of the illusion. There’s nothing innocently childlike about fourteen. Christ, you’re impossible lately. If anyone asks, you’re twelve. Just throw the dress on, make sure it fits.”

Marlene went to the closet, pulled out the ironing board.

I shoved the dress to the side, rolled over and picked around in her open suitcase. There were two little bottles. I pulled one out.

“What’s Ketamine? . . . equivalent to 100mg per ml.

“Your perfume. There are two little vials in there. I dumped a couple of old perfume samples. We’ll refill them with Ketamine.

I read from the bottle. “Caution: Federal law restricts this drug to use by or on the order of a licensed physician.


Going down in the elevator, I checked myself out in the mirrors. The tensor band she had me wear on my chest was killing. It was supposed to squash my little marbles flat and it was tight as hell. “This dress is brutal.”

“It’s cute.” Marlene straightened the collar. “Christ, I think I can still see boobs,” she whispered, and mashed a hand down over my chest.

“Mom! Knock it off. I’m totally flat. Jill Williams calls me Reese’s Pieces.”

Marlene laughed.

“Yeah. Hilarious.”

“Just round your shoulders a little.”

Marlene led me by the hand through the casino. She sat with me at the nickel slots and ordered Shirley Temples for me. At dinnertime we went to one of the hotel restaurants where the buffet consisted of baron of beef and mountains of crab legs.

My mother ordered the buffet. I thought the buffet smelled like vomit-crusted armpit so she ordered me a cheeseburger.

When our food came, Marlene looked me in the eye, poked a finger into an imaginary dimple in her cheek and said, “Lighten up, misery-guts.”

I crossed my eyes at her. The tensor band itched and I rubbed my ribs on the table edge, trying to scratch underneath.

So she leaned forward and whispered a rude joke about two skeletons doing it on a tin roof. Cracked me up.

“Gross,” I said, coughing on my burger.

Then I remembered this joke that Jill had told at school. Jill and I weren’t really friends in those days but I thought she was funny. “Okay,” I said, “Little Red Riding Hood is walking through the woods when suddenly the Big Bad Wolf jumps out from behind a tree and he goes, ‘Listen, Little Red, I’m going to screw your brains out! So, Little Red reaches into her picnic basket—”

“What do you think of him?” Marlene interrupted. She nodded past me. “The big one.”

I looked over my shoulder at two hefty middle-aged guys. Each of them was eating lobster. The bigger one had a thick beard all greasy with guts and butter. Like a grizzly bear eating a giant cockroach. He took one hand off his lobster to wave.

I glanced back at Marlene, who fluttered her hand at him.

“Why the big one?” I whispered.

“He looks greedy,” she said, smiling past my shoulder.

Three minutes later, the waitress came to our table. She set some kind of cola in front of me and a boozy thing in front of Marlene. “This is called a ‘Beautiful,’” the waitress said. “It’s from the gentleman at that table over there. He’s wondering if you and your daughter are on your own.”

Marlene sighed up at the waitress. “Yes, I guess we are. Oh, maybe you shouldn’t tell him that.” She mouthed thank you over at the grizzly. “Say thank you for your Coke, honey.”

I twisted around and waved, giving him a big phony smile.

Grizzly Adams motioned the waitress back to him.

I continued. “Can I finish my joke now? Okay, so, the wolf goes, Red, I’m going to screw your brains out. Then Little Red reaches into her picnic basket, pulls out a gun and says—”

“Excuse me.” The waitress was back. “The gentleman would like to know if you would be interested in joining him for a cocktail in the main lounge this evening?”

“Well, I don’t know.” My mother’s face turned pink and she covered her mouth. You’ve got to hand it to a chick who can actually blush on cue. I couldn’t help but smile as I bit into my burger.

“Nine o’clock?” the waitress said, and Marlene nodded.


Marlene and I were in the main lounge before nine.

Marlene spoke softly. “Once it’s in, I’ll send you to bed and then—”

“Can I go swimming?” I asked out loud. “I brought my bathing suit.” I held up the little pink purse she’d given me to carry.

Marlene looked at it as though it were full of turds. “No.”

“What’s the big deal? Why can’t I go swimming?”

Suddenly Marlene’s sucker was just a few feet away and I kicked her under the table.

“Who wants to go swimming?” the grizzly said.

Marlene jerked her head up and flashed him a cheery face.

“Nobody’s going swimming. It’s almost her bedtime.” She stuck out her hand. “I’m Louise. Thank you so much for buying us dinner. That was awfully generous of you.”

“Hank.” He kissed the back of my mother’s hand and took the seat nearest her. “My pleasure. I made out like a bandit at the craps table today. Made a killing!”

“We all had a good day, then. My little one here won twenty-seven dollars at the slots.”

“Wow!” He gave me a big dopey smile to show how impressed he was. He glanced from Marlene to me. “Look at the two of you. Can’t believe there aren’t a hundred men lined up for your company! Let me order us a beverage.”

Soon the two of them were gabbing about shows in town. Hank said he had tickets to a late show at some other casino. The show was a little on the risqué side but he’d be happy to spring for a sitter for me.

“I can’t stand sitters,” I said. I was being a bit of a jerk but I had decided that that was my character’s attitude for this hustle. Like Sam taught me, it’s good to incorporate your real feelings into your character.

Marlene didn’t appear to agree with me. Keep it light, keep it simple—that’s her motto.

Hank grinned and ordered a second drink.

I took a Rubik’s cube out of my purse and started rotating the squares.

“Come on, honey, put that away and be a young lady,” Marlene said.

I pouted and stuffed it back in my purse.

“She’s okay,” Hank said. “What grade are you in, sweetheart?”


“Seven? I thought you’d be in grade 8 for sure. Pretty girl. Boy, if I were twenty years younger!”

I looked at his livery lips and bushy beard. “You’re a dirty old man,” I said.

“Honey!” Marlene sounded genuinely irate.

Hank laughed his ass off. “That’s what they tell me. She’s a sharpie, this one.”

I rummaged in my purse and took out the Love’s Baby Soft perfume vial. I pulled the small plastic plug off and sniffed. It smelled sharp. Like chlorine.

Marlene watched me. Her eyes were nervous, but she sighed and said, “Young ladies don’t apply cosmetics at the table, either.”

“It’s perfume, not cosmetics.” I took another whiff.

“Give me that.” My mother took the vial and fumbled with the top.

“I’m going to hit the head,” Hank announced, and got up and left the table.

“I think you might be overdoing it a little,” Marlene whispered once he was out of earshot. She raised her voice and launched into a loud lecture on manners and then, while pushing back the drink glasses, flipped the liquid from the vial into Hank’s rye and Coke. “Here’s the key. Be a good girl and get ready for bed and I’ll be up in a few minutes.”

I found the second vial in my purse. It was supposed to be for our next hotel. I held it so that Marlene could see it anyway.

She shook her head. “We’re not trying to kill him,” she whispered.

I stood as Hank returned. I told him that I was sorry if I’d been rude.

“Rude? Nonsense! We’re pals, aren’t we? You can be yourself around ol’ Hank.” He patted my arm. The size and weight of his hand—like a baseball glove—gave me pause for a second.

I looked at Marlene.

“I’ll be up soon, honey.” She kissed my cheek.

I told Hank good night, and made for the elevators.

Sooner or later, this guy was going to try and move Marlene up to his room. She’d put that whole friggin’ vial of Ketamine in, though—the goof might just pass out in the bar and then what would she do?

As I waited for the elevator, I looked back toward the lounge. The only way for this to work would be for her to actually go with him to his room. Every hustle we’d ever pulled before this was in public.

The elevator opened and I glanced back again just as Marlene was laughing, her head tipped back. Something about the way her mouth opened, as if she could be screaming, made the hair on my arms prickle.

Don’t be a dope, I thought. If anyone can take care of herself, it’s her.

Outside our room, I opened my purse for the room key.

Inside was my swimsuit, just sitting there in a little ball. I had seen the pool when we checked in that morning. The deck had all this gorgeous marble, and white pillars with Roman statues. I wanted to make like I was Cleopatra taking a dip. Once Marlene was finished with this guy, she’d said she wanted to move to another hotel. I’d never get a chance to swim if I played by her rules.

I looked at my watch. I could go down to the pool for half an hour and she’d never know.


In the lobby, I ducked out of sight and tried to get a look into the lounge. They were gone, near as I could tell. I slipped behind another column. Man, I loved those crazy Roman statues—they were so friggin’ cool. Marlene and Hank were definitely not in the lounge any more.

I couldn’t wait to step into that warm pool water, the golden lanterns illuminating the deck. I’d be like that chick in the Ban de Soleil commercial. The jingle started up in my head: Ban de Soleil for the San Tropez tan . . .

Standing in the lobby, I tried to recall which way the pool was. Everywhere seemed to lead back to the casino. Signs pointed to the elevators, to the shopping area, to the lounge. I headed back across the lobby toward the front desk to ask directions.

As I came closer, I heard one of the receptionists say, “Security will be right up.”

I stepped up to the desk.

“Disturbance on the twelfth floor,” the receptionist told a man in a black suit on the other side of the counter. “Code two.”

My heart started to bang.

The guy in the black suit spoke into a walkie-talkie. “Security to twelve. Code two.”

I turned and watched two more suited men rush past me to the lobby elevators.

It can’t be her, I thought. She put the whole vial in, didn’t she? He was big, though. Maybe one wasn’t enough. Why didn’t she take the second vial just in case? I looked up at the ceiling as though I could find her that way.

Then I bolted for the elevators.


Before the doors opened on the twelfth I could hear the shouting.

I stepped off the elevator and turned toward the noise and there was Marlene on the carpet in the hallway, on all fours, gasping and sobbing. A man and woman were bent over her, trying to help her up, but she would not be touched.

Two men in black suits had Hank pushed face first against the wall, arms twisted behind his back, wrists bent in a way that made them look broken.

Hank howled, his face mashed sideways as he yelled, “It’s that bitch, not me. Kick her ass. Fuckin’ slut-thief!” There was blood on the white door frame beside him.

I scrambled down the hall. “Leave her alone. Don’t touch her!”

Marlene looked up and whispered my name. Blood on her face, she swung her hand, shooing the couple away from her.

“Is this your mother?” the woman asked me. “Sweetheart, maybe you should let us—”

“Fuck off,” I said.

The woman shrunk back against her husband. “Somebody should call the police.”

“No police.” My mother cried it—all her words were cries.

I had hold of her now. Her face. Jesus Christ, her beautiful face. Blood ran down from her eyebrow, and from her nose, and rimmed her teeth. She was all broken. Her hands hung in the air in front of her, blood between her fingers.

The yellow dress puffed around me as I knelt on the floor. This never would have happened if Sam were here, I thought. I have to call Sam.

A few feet away, Hank raged and hollered and I hollered right back. “Shut up, you fat prick.”

I tried to use the hem of my dress to wipe her hands but the synthetic material wasn’t doing the job. “You got any Kleenex?” I asked the woman who still hovered near us.

The woman gave me some tissues and I brought them to Marlene’s nose, trying not to hurt her. “We have to go to the hospital,” I whispered.

“I want to go home,” Marlene whimpered back. “Please.”

“I don’t think there’s a flight tonight.”

“Home. Take me home.”

“Mom. Please. Maybe we should call Daddy.”

“Who? What are you—?” Marlene was panting now. “Take me home.”


Security seemed just as happy not to call the cops. Eventually I got Marlene back to our room and packed our bags while she sobbed in the bathroom. I got her some ice wrapped in a towel and talked her into lying down for a while. Then I lay in the second double bed and listened to her cry.

It was 4:58 a.m. when Marlene sat up again. “Let’s go,” she whispered.

I called downstairs and asked to have a taxi waiting.

Lionel Richie and Diana Ross sang “Endless Love” on the radio as we got into the cab. I asked the driver to turn it off, please.

“Leave it,” Marlene said.

The desert sun was just coming up and the radio station gave us more Lionel. Tears ran down Marlene’s face as “Three Times a Lady” filled the taxi. Richie was in town at some big hotel. We passed his name up in lights.

So much dirt and misery and meanness, and here was Lionel Richie droning away about love two shows a night.

We were on the first flight out of Vegas.


It was ten-thirty in the morning by the time we got to Vancouver General. Under her sunglasses, Marlene’s face was one big mass of swollen purple bruises and black cuts. She phoned Fat Freddy from a pay phone while we waited in Emergency. She cried. She whispered bits and pieces of what had happened to her.

When a doctor finally saw us, she told him that she’d fallen down the stairs. It was her divorce, she said. The stress was giving her insomnia and the lack of sleep was making her clumsy.

They put five stitches in her eyebrow and taped her nose, gave her prescriptions for Percocet for pain and some Ativan to calm her nerves. Freddy picked us up and drove us back to the apartment.

On the way home, he asked Marlene how much Ketamine she’d used. “A hundred milligrams,” she told him. “One millilitre dumped into his drink. You said—”

“Orally? Ah, honey, no.” He reached for her hand. “Hundred by injection, sure. Orally—that’d barely put a German shepherd to sleep.”

He murmured sympathy and kissed her hand as he drove. I stared at the back of his head.


For weeks, Marlene wouldn’t go out. She stared at the TV and popped painkillers and Ativan. She started sipping vodka and milk sometime around noon each day.

When the phone would ring, she barely looked at me. “Tell them I’m not home.” Unless it was Freddy. Suddenly Freddy was the only one who could really understand what had happened to her.

He came by the apartment to see her every couple of days. He brought her a Hummel figurine the first week: a little blonde girl bathing a baby. Marlene touched the smooth, pale arms on the little girl and tears rolled down her face.

Freddy smiled. “Cute, isn’t it? I thought you’d like it.”

“I’m a terrible mother,” Marlene sobbed. She cried full-on for a good ten minutes.

I went into my room and closed the door.

Whenever Freddy made a pest of himself after that, he came bearing designer blouses instead.

It was two weeks after Vegas that I came in from school and Freddy was there, joining her in a drink. This time he had brought her a box of European chocolates.

“Good thing you girls started collecting that welfare cheque a few years back,” he said. “That welfare’s a nice little safety net for a single gal.”

I could feel myself stiffen. “We don’t need welfare. It’s just available, that’s all.”

“Looks like you need it now, sweetheart,” Freddy said. “I think you definitely need it now.” He seemed to leer when he said it.

I wondered whether it was the government cheques or the vulnerability of Marlene’s half-broke face that turned him on.

—-Billie Livingston


Billie Livingston published her critically acclaimed first novel, Going Down Swinging, in 2000. Her book of poetry, The Chick at the Back of the Church, was a finalist for the Pat Lowther Award. Her novel, Cease to Blush was a Globe and Mail Best Book as was her story collection, Greedy Little Eyes, which went on to win the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and the CBC’s Bookie Prize. One Good Hustle will was published July 24, 2012

Jul 262012

The novel begins exactly where it will end: with Miss Frost. Miss Frost is the moral core of the novel. She lives as a woman though she has a penis and breasts. She is sexually and romantically attracted to men but does not have a lover. In a world in which almost everybody is either hiding or unaware of his sexual eccentricities, Miss Frost is confident and stable as herself.


In One Person
By John Irving
Simon & Schuster.
425 pages. $28.


John Irving’s new novel, In One Person, is about the life of a bisexual man from his early teens till his middle-age. It’s not so much a coming-out or a coming-of-age story but the story of coming home. The hero/narrator Billy Abbot begins his sexual life confused and feeling alone, but he finds himself, at the end of the novel, surrounded by people who love him as he is and are willing to defend him as he is.

The novel begins exactly where it will end: with Miss Frost. Miss Frost is the moral core of the novel. She lives as a woman though she has a penis and breasts. She is sexually and romantically attracted to men but does not have a lover. In a world in which almost everybody is either hiding or unaware of his sexual eccentricities, Miss Frost is confident and stable as herself. Billy says of her: “At the time, Miss Frost struck me as the most genuine person I knew.”

In One Person divides into three parts: high school, life after high school before AIDS, and the AIDS epidemic and assorted deaths. In boarding school Billy has a friend named Elaine who will stay his friend his whole life. Billy and Elaine share a crush on Jacques Kittredge who is the quintessential jock-bully. (In the ultimate moment of poetic justice, Kittredge grows up and has sex-change surgery — it turns out he was probably abused by his mother). Kittredge gets Elaine pregnant and harasses Billy about being effeminate. The reader also learns that Billy’s father was probably gay but not out of the closet. After Billy’s birth he ran off with a man he’d met in the Navy. But his whereabouts are unknown.

Billy’s stepfather, Richard, directs Shakespeare plays at the boarding school, and Billy is in most of them, along with Kittredge. Shakespeare becomes a grand motif throughout the novel. The novel’s title itself is from a line in Richard II: “Thus play I in one person many people/and none contented.” The idea of living as yourself as opposed to acting for the world is important throughout the novel. And the parallels between the plays and the characters in the novel rarely go unremarked. Consider that Richard casts Billy as Ariel in The Tempest with Elaine as Miranda and Kittredge as Ferdinand. Irving often treats us to mini-essays about the literary works he mentions. Richard, for example, talks about the way he understands the “the continuum from Caliban through Prospero to Ariel — a kind of spiritual evolution.”

During this period, Billy has intercrural (between thighs) sex with Miss Frost. Just before Billy graduates Miss Frost reveals that she earlier attended the same high school under the name Albert Frost, or Big Al, one of the best wrestlers the school ever had.  Though they only spend a couple of nights together and Miss Frost never explicitly reciprocates the emotion, Billy will love Miss Frost with the most romantic fervor of anyone in his life.

After high school Billy spends the summer in Europe with his first boyfriend, Tom Atkins, but the two are not meant for one another, and they drift apart. Billy moves to New York City to study German before spending a year in Vienna at the Insitut Für Europӓische Studien. In Vienna he hooks up with his first girlfriend, Esmeralda, an American and an aspiring opera singer, and Lawrence Upton, a lover and one of his lifelong friends. Larry is a poet who teaches at the institute. Like the Shakespearean director, Richard, Larry is one of the novel’s commentators, a voice of literary evaluation or criticism. Both play a paternal part in Billy’s life though, in Larry’s case, only after he and Billy are no longer lovers.

After college, Billy moves to L.A. with a woman, breaks up and moves back to New York to be with Elaine and Larry who are both living in the city. His mother and aunt die in a car accident, and Elaine and Billy return to their hometown of Second Sister, Vermont, for the funeral where Billy’s uncle, who is terribly intoxicated, lets slip that Billy’s father is living in Spain.  (Ironically, the father and his lover seem to have the most stable romantic relationship in the novel.)

We move now into the death and AIDS section of the novel. This part includes some of the most poignant scenes. Irving describes the dying men with a chilling accuracy. But he tamps down the melodrama by including a lot of medical jargon. Tom Atkins, the young man with whom Billy traveled in Europe after high school, ends up married with children. But like many of the characters in the novel, Atkins has kept his homosexuality a secret and contracts AIDS during an affair. Larry’s lover dies of AIDS in his arms. Billy’s Grandpa Harry shoots himself in the bathtub. (Grandpa Harry is a wonderful character. He participates in many of the local plays and almost always takes the role of a woman. It’s unclear if Grandpa Harry is gay, but it’s probable that he is just a straight man who likes to dress in women’s clothing. He is among the kindest and sweetest people Billy knows.) Larry eventually dies cradled in Elaine’s and Billy’s arms. Miss Frost is beaten to death by a group of rowdy sailors at a bar — but not before sending several of them to the hospital. Kittredge dies of natural causes at fifty-four, but, as Billy says, “What ‘natural causes’ can kill you when you’re fifty-four?.”

Billy moves back to Second Sister and into the house he grew up in. He becomes a teacher at the high school where he went as a boy. It is now co-ed and there is a large LGBT community. Billy’s books are all about sexual identity and confusion, and he begins to mentor a young student who is a boy becoming a girl. Billy assumes the role of teaching and directing Shakespeare. The book ends when Kittredge’s son comes to the school to confront Billy. The scene is slightly ridiculous but somehow apt. The boy accuses of Billy of contributing to his father’s gender issues by publicly trying to normalize alternate sexualities. More importantly, he tries to categorize Billy by calling him bisexual. Billy retorts by quoting Miss Frost and thus encases the novel in her morality.

The skeletal story structure which I just described is in chronological order; this is the major narrative arc of the book. But the novel is not set up in chronological sequence. Irving uses a reminiscent first person narrator which means this novel is a memory being fleshed out not a story being told toward an ending.  This is an important distinction. The ending, though crucial, is not the point of the novel because the ending is just another moment in Billy’s life. The ending of the novel isn’t even the end of Billy’s life; there’s actually more to the story. What is going on here then? What drives this novel?

Irving does not drive his narrative toward a conclusion. He bobs and weaves his way through a web of thematic and semantic memory association (loosely guided by linear movement of time but not constrained to it) until he lands at a moment in which we have come full circle. The novel begins with Billy saying he is going to tell the reader about Miss Frost and ends with him quoting something she once said to him. “My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me—don’t make me a category before you get to know me!” This ending is not so much circular as a constant presence. The novel itself has a constant awareness of the ending. In fact, the narrator (Billy) says to the reader very early in the novel: “But I’m getting ahead of myself; alas it’s what a writer who knows the end of the story tends to do.”

Thus we have a Billy-of-the-main-narrative, who is unaware of the ending, and the Billy-as-the-narrator, who is wholly aware of the ending, and the way Irving constructs the novel leaves the reader in between the two.

One of the temporal disruption techniques Irving uses is what I call the side-story. He inserts little side-stories throughout the novel which interrupt the main narrative and are always out of their chronological place. Usually the stories are future events (that is future relative to the present of the main narrative). Billy uses something from the main narrative as an associative link or springboard and then launches into the side-story after which he settles back into the main narrative as if nothing had happened. These side-stories serve to give the readers glimpses of the future which the Billy-of-the-main-narrative doesn’t know about yet. They create tension between the three perspectives, the three levels of knowledge at work; Young Billy knows the least and the reader knows more than Billy does but less than the narrator.

The chapter “Leaving Esmeralda” is a good example of the side-story technique. The chapter begins in 1960 with Billy in high school. A few pages in, Billy is talking to a woman whom he feels is rather dominant, but he likes that. Then there is a line a break, and Irving jumps ahead to when Billy and Larry are lovers and living together. Irving ties these two sections together with thematic material about Billy being dominant or submissive in relationships. As in, the first time Larry picks Billy up he shocks him with the question: “Are you a top or bottom, beautiful Bill?” Irving floats forward in time to the seventies in New York to another conversation between Billy and Larry “still seeing each other but no longer living together” which is followed by a flashback to rehearsal for The Tempest when there was a conversation about Ariel’s gender and then a time reference bringing us back to Billy in high school.

Irving makes an interesting move now. There is a line break and then Billy calls himself out: “It’s revealing how I have skipped ahead to my junior year abroad in Vienna, choosing to begin that interlude in my future life by telling you about Larry.” The narrative here is conscious of its erratic movement but only in an analytical way. Billy remarks that he probably skipped ahead and didn’t start with the story of his first girlfriend because he wanted to tell the readers that it is hard to come out as a teenager. Either way, what follows is a miniature essay about being bisexual and dealing with confusing feelings. Right after that there is another line break and then we get the story of Esmeralda which is also the story of Billy’s year abroad. Keep in mind, the main narrative is paused somewhere in high school while Irving wanders down this detour of the future.

But let’s examine more closely the movement here. What we should notice is the intersecting themes, i.e. the way these disparate parts relate to one another. This is all outside the plot, the chronological narrative arc, of the story, but it has to do with Billy’s eventual coming-to-terms with his sexuality. So the chapter begins with the dominant/ submissive dyad; then we have Larry who mistypes Billy for a bottom (submissive) when he is a top; and then Billy remarks on the difficulty of coming out. The paragraph before the Esmeralda story is about Billy not feeling ashamed of being bisexual, of being attracted to women, but he notices that many of his gay friends find this “suspicious.” These thoughts and sentiments are all playing on the theme of a man trying to understand his sexuality, i.e. what he likes; what he doesn’t like; how what he likes makes him and others feel.

This progression of self-analysis is logical and Irving tracks it by telling stories which relate to each step in the analysis until landing on the longer story of Billy’s time with Esmeralda. Curiously, though the chapter is mostly about being with Esmeralda, the title of the chapter is about leaving her. It is interesting that before we are even aware who Esmeralda is, we know that Billy will leave her. The ending of the chapter is in its title. It is as if the ending of this chapter or story is the story itself.

What stands out is that Irving structures the narrative as of Billy were working through memories based on association. Billy is looking back on his life (reminiscing) and picking out idea lines and following them until they lead back the story of his life. The side-story is not meant to press the plot forward but to take a break from the progression. The side-story exemplifies through experience and memory the idea is Billy is thinking about, i.e. when he thinks about being attracted to women he tells the story of his first girlfriend. In this instance, the narrative progresses thematically rather than along a plot line or time line. It creates a novel founded more on the organic nature of thought and memory than the strict linear movement of cause and effect or chronology.

Irving plays with time in other ways besides using side-stories. He quotes snippets of dialogue from disparate times in the novel thus further squishing together the two time-perspectives. For example: “Miss Frost was always making me move to a chair or a couch or a table where there was better light. ‘Don’t ruin your eyes, William. You’ll need your eyes for the rest of your life, if you’re going to be a reader’” (42). This is an interesting example because not only is Irving quoting dialogue that never occurs in a scene in the book, he also implies a number of scenes that did take place. The reader’s understanding of Billy and Miss Frost’s relationship is exponentially richer, deeper and quicker than if Irving had tried to deliver whole scenes.

Irving uses the imperfect tense here which means that the action was never completed, i.e. never perfected. There is this sense then that Miss Frost is always and continuously looking out for Billy. In this off-hand description of an imperfect scene that “always” happened, there is the implication that Miss Frost said these words multiple times and that she will continue to say them.

Sometimes there is no lead-in to the implied scene. Irving drops a quote into the text as its own paragraph. On page 57 there is an example of this:

“Nymph,” Kittredge’s nickname for me, would stick. I had two years to go at Favorite River Academy; a Nymph I would be.

“It doesn’t matter what costume and makeup do to you, Nymph,” Kittredge had said to me privately. “You’ll never be as hot as your mother.”

I was conscious that my mom was pretty and—at seventeen— I was increasingly conscious of how other students at an all boys’ academy like Favorite River regarded her.

These dropped-in-quotes imply scenes that must have happened without giving full descriptions of them. Thus, like the earlier example and like the side-stories, they create a more complete picture of Billy’s life without delving into each specific moment. Interestingly, we don’t arrive at these quotations in a sequential way but the connection is always associative, like memory.

Irving’s use of the reminiscent narrator offers up an interesting way to explore how memory can drive a novel. The reminiscent narrator is not a new structure, but the way Irving leaps from moment to moment semantically (i.e. relating events out of chronological order through ideas) is closer to a memory than just a simple re-telling. We store memories in webs of idea-relationships. And the reminiscent narrative Irving uses to tell the story of Billy Abbot coming to terms with himself is an unwrapping of the idea that is Miss Frost. Miss Frost is an ideal; the person in the novel most at home with herself. Irving begins with her as the kernel idea and then the rest of the book is meant to unpack her, that is: what it means to be her.

We finally land, at the end of the novel, back where we started, and Billy repeats something Miss Frost had said to him, the line: “My dear boy, please don’t put a label on me—don’t make me a category before you get to know me!” We have come full circle and Billy now understands more clearly who Miss Frost was and what she had meant by this line. In One Person is about remembering and understanding. Irving jumps from one time to another taking advantage of the fact that memory has a fluidity in association that breeches temporal boundaries. While remembering we are not constrained by chronological ordering. We have, as the author does, the entire story in front of us at every turn.

— Jacob Glover


Jacob Glover is a Philosophy & Classics student at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is a frequent NC contributor of essays, reviews and poems.


Jul 242012

My friend (and long time NC contributor) Michael Bryson’s wife, Kate, died of cancer in May, after a brief, sweet marriage. Words fail.

But words were their common ground and meeting place, their sign of courage. Both Kate and Michael knew you’re not a victim if you keep talking, writing, thinking, questioning and defying. All through her treatment, Kate blogged with immense intelligence, grace, wit and courage at her site Auntie Cake’s Shop. When she no longer had the strength, Michael took over for her. Along the way, Michael wrote a gorgeous essay called “My Wife’s Hair” and a “Dear Kate Letter” and fugitive, poignant observations such as “Breast Cancer Can Put You in a Wheelchair.” I place all these links here, along with Michael’s essay, as a memorial to their life together.




In the weeks before and after breast cancer ended my wife’s life on May 23, 2012, I was unable to read.

Surprising? No. But for me, a life-long reader, an existential risk.

I read, therefore I am. Books, engagement with literature, the pleasure of the text, whatever you want to call it, the continuity of my life is sustained by reading.

I use the present tense (“is” instead of “has been”) because I believe in that continuity, even though I am suffering (another self-conscious word choice) a break, a gap, a malfunction.

I’ve stopped reading. I’ve stopped being myself.

I’m grieving. I’m in the process of becoming someone new.

First, there was only the stress of the disease. Then, there was only the stress of her absence.

But there is also continuity (I believe, though I also disbelieve it). I’m still here (somehow; it seems miraculous). And so are her two kids (eight and twelve). My role as patriarch sustains me most days. My identity as a reading person has paused, but my identity as (step-)daddy remains abundantly active.

I want my reading identity back. I need my reading identity back. (My reading identity will crack the code for the next phase of my mysterious future I believe, though again without knowing why; without being able to articulate the slightest reason.)

So, then, how? Or rather, what?

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.

I couldn’t have predicted this, but this pair is what I want, need, to read right now. This is the ONLY pair that I CAN read right now.

My attention span for reading is travelling along a narrow band. Or perhaps I should say that the signal has only recently returned and it remains faint. I can only hear certain frequencies.

Why is it that I can hear Beckett and Woolf?

What are they saying that resonates with my current dilemma?


“I can’t go on, I’ll go on” (Beckett, The Unnameables).

Kate is buried in the cemetery that is half-a-block from my house. When Naomi was three, she used to yell at the cemetery as we drove past: “Hello, dead people!”

I reminded her of that recently, and she didn’t remember.

So much is transitory.

I go to the cemetery regularly to say hello to Kate. A planter with flowers serves as the headstone at the moment, and I go water it.

Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I don’t. The earth over the grave is still sand. They haven’t re-sodded it. I’ve written “KO” in that place. Someone told me they were wandering in the graveyard and thought, “Ah, that must be Kate’s place.”

I walk away from the grave thinking, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

Why should I go on without her? There are, of course, a multitude of reasons; the kids chief among them. But I find it most convincing to say simply, I will go on, because I will.

Derek Weiler, the editor of Quill & Quire when he passed away in 2009, had “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” as a tattoo. He had a life-long heart condition that slowed him down and eventually stopped him. That’s where I first heard the phrase, but now it’s part of my linguistic DNA.

Waiting for Godot riffs on a related theme. Not about “going on;” instead, “waiting.”

The play begins:

ESTRAGON: [giving up again] Nothing to be done.

VLADIMIR: [advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart] I’m beginning to come to come round to that opinion.

Or as one meditation teacher of mine (and Kate’s) said, repeatedly: “Nowhere to go, nothing to do.”

We ended up in meditation as a result of a book called Full Catastrophe Living by John Kabat-Zinn. Kate’s GP recommended it, to help with the anxiety of the disease. And so we discovered the field of psychiatric oncology. The book is based on a meditation workshop. We asked if there were not such workshops in Toronto, and soon we were signed up for one.

We were not in a hurry to go anywhere, because we knew the only place the disease had to go was somewhere worse. We were content to wait. To remain in “the present” perpetually. Putting off thoughts about tomorrow as long as possible. (While also acknowledging what was happening.)

We found ourselves at the hospital often, waiting. On one occasion, Kate had an appointment with her oncologist for 3:30 in the afternoon; we finally saw the doctor at 9:30 that evening. When we left, the entire hospital wing was empty.

Kate said, simply, “Thank you for seeing me.” Pushing away anxieties and letting go of the things that we couldn’t control had become by then a central element of her life, her way of living, her way of being.


Liminality is another word from this period.

Merriam Webster gives the definition of “liminal” as:

1. of or relating to a sensory threshold

2. barely perceptible

3. of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition.

Kate wrote on her blog a number of times about being in this “in between” space, also contemplating the Buddhist term “bardo.”

After her death, I found the following in one of her notebooks:

Liminal space –

space between transition
between living and dying
– have a dual awareness
* awareness of both living and dying

bottom line:
but not real sound
a pot to boil
taxi to come
a friend to arrive
a plane to catch
liminal surprises

mail, books, letters
from afar
show tunes in a cab
time to sort your thoughts –
so long as there’s no missed deadline

liminal as missing something
amiss/a miss
rather than liminal as space
entity – distinct entity
or something lost

nowhere to go – nothing to do
nothing to do but breathe

gas bubble
coursing through
dark region
breath, required
necessary, but not
aware of it – life
we cease when we
but we don’t know when it is
we are only aware of
our stopping when the catch in our
throats hitches onto
an idea but gets
caught in a wad of
tangled breath
catch it in time

The word “waiting” jumped out at me.


What is this state of waiting? Why did Beckett call to me after Kate’s death?

This “in between” consciousness is an awareness, as Kate’s notes indicate, of being both here and not-here. Leaving one place and not yet arriving at another.

For Kate, it was a state between life and death. For me, it is a state between with-Kate and without-Kate.

I have found that I was ready for Kate to die. She was beyond ill for a significant period of time. The doctors kept hoping to stabilize her, but in the final months didn’t.

I knew she was going to die, and I was emotionally ready for the final act.

I was not ready, however, for her to be gone. Forever gone. Emotionally, I can only state that it is impossible. I cannot register that belief.

Like Estragon and Vladimir wait for Godot, I wait for Kate.

I can only believe that I will see her again, and this is an experience different from my expectation.

Perhaps this is a form of magical thinking, as Joan Didion made widely famous. But I don’t think so. Didion kept her closets full of her late-husband’s clothes because “he’ll need them when he comes back.”

I don’t have that kind of expectation. I have relieved my closet of much of Kate’s clothes.

My expectation is existential, and I don’t think it will ever go away.

I am, I live, within a Beckettean structure. Perpetually waiting.

And I’m okay with that. The mysteries, and opportunities, it seems to be, are boundless.


I have now finished reading Waiting for Godot and Mrs. Dalloway. I would hesitate to say that they have anything in common except a strong uneasiness with certainty.

Beckett’s character wait and employ various strategies, mostly verbal, to fill the void of waiting. The plot of Mrs. Dalloway contrasts the planning and hosting of a party (held for no reason other than it be held) against a suicide.

Beckett’s characters also contemplate suicide, and they seem ready to follow through with the act, but they want for rope.

Kate, I want to be clear, had no desire for death. No desire to let go of her life. The suicide option explored by Beckett and Woolf is a rhetorical option.

To live or not live. To choose to turn into life or turn away from it.

Kate chose always to turn into it. To have parties for no reason. This also meant, however, that she grasped the deep details of her life, and she knew it was ending.

Her approach, however, drove her not to attempt to summarize her life; or to turn her thoughts obsessively to the past; instead she focused determinedly on the meaning of every moment. Making new meaning out of every future moment.

Or in the words of a title of a book that became important to her: Enjoy Every Sandwich (by Lee Lipsenthal).

I often think of her in the title of a short story (about a woman dying of breast cancer) by Thom Jones: “I want to live!”

An example. As Kate lay dying in the back room of our house, where she died, I noticed that the poppies had bloomed in our front yard. More precisely, one poppy had bloomed, our first. I picked it and brought it to her. She smiled. Her face formed an, Oh!

It was the last pleasure I was able to give her. She died three days later.

Let the poppy represent the party. Life is to be lived; therefore, enjoyed. One waits for the mystery of what is going to happen next.


But let’s also talk about the absurdity of waiting.

On May 18, 2012, the Friday before Kate died (on Wednesday, May 23), she had two appointments at the Sunnybrook Medical Centre. The medical team had helpfully booked both procedures on the same day, so she wouldn’t have to go back and forth from home. However, one was booked for 8:30 in the morning, the other at 3:00 in the afternoon.

Which meant we would be at the hospital all day, especially since the procedure in the afternoon (chemotherapy) was sure to be delayed, which it was (by about 90 minutes).

On top of that, Kate could no longer walk. She could shuffle a few feet, but she could not climb stairs, and there are two dozen stairs between the sidewalk and our front door. So we had to hire a private ambulance company to carry her down the stairs and take her to the hospital. Then at the end of the day, we had to call them to pick us up, bring us home, and carry Kate back up the stairs.

Ultimately, this meant we left home at 7:30 in the morning and didn’t return until 7:30 at night.

Which meant we spent 12 hours together, mostly waiting.

I remember that time fondly, as it was our opportunity to say good-bye, and much else, and we were never alone again after that.

We were waiting for procedures, but more simply we were “being together,” and I told her that I wished that that moment would last forever.

I wished that time would simply stop.

I could wait for Godot forever. I needed nothing else to be complete.

When we saw the results of her blood work that afternoon, we knew there was going to be no recovery. She said, “I guess this is it.”

I want to go on, I can’t go on.

She asked me what I feared most. “Chaos,” I said. I was afraid that my life would spin out of control. Events would happen that would be beyond my ability to manage.

Of course, chaos did happen. Absurd things happened. I control them by calling them absurd, instead of allowing them to send me into a tornado of rage.

The day after Kate’s funeral, I made contact with the pay and benefits clerk at Kate’s employer to begin the death administration. She would be pleased to help me, she said. She just needed to get Kate’s personnel file before she could begin. A week later, I called back and she hadn’t located the file. A week later, I called back and she hadn’t located the file. A week later, I called back and she hadn’t located the file, so I escalated the issue to a manager and within 20 minutes they had located the file.

The private ambulance had cost $190 one way and $380 return, which I paid in advance by credit card. A week after Kate’s death, I called asking for my receipt. They patched me through to the accounting department, who told me a receipt would be sent. Two weeks later, no receipt, I called back and again they told me a receipt would be issues. Two weeks later, no receipt, I called back and they remembered me. We will send a receipt, they said, and a couple of days later it arrived.

“Waiting is the hardest part,” is a lyric from Tom Petty.

“Waiting for a superman,” is a song by the Flaming Lips.

The administrators of Kate’s pension sent me a letter offering condolences at the loss of my spouse. They also enclosed a form that I was apparently required to complete and get notarized by a lawyer, proving that I was indeed her spouse. Directions for the form included the statement: “Check I WAS MARRIED TO THE DECEASED if you were legally married to the deceased.”

You can’t make shit like this up. I don’t know how lawyers sleep at night.

It hadn’t occurred to me that the chaos that would follow Kate’s death would be the absurdity of administration. Yet, I am caught, enmeshed in it.

As Kate was dying, the doctors tried to get more nursing care to come to our home. But in order to get “shift nursing,” one must first file a claim through any insurance you have. I filled out the paperwork, and the doctor signed and faxed it in. A week after she died, Kate received a letter from the insurance company that she didn’t qualify for nursing care.

These are not even all of the stories I have. They are a sampling.

Here’s one more. A week before Kate died, I knew she was dying. I knew it in my bones, although there was a minor hope that she would get a “chemo bounce,” and some extension of time. I didn’t expect it, and I busied myself rallying the healthcare team to step up their care of Kate in the home and pay more attention to her decline, which was changing daily.

Then the day before she died, the palliative doctor gave me a handout that listed “what to expect when someone is dying.” It listed a dozen bodily changes, most of which had already happened to Kate. The doctor then said he wouldn’t be surprised if Kate died that day. She lived for 24 hours.

I was told that the palliative doctors would manage her death. No one needs to be in pain, they said. But they failed to manage her death. A week before she died, I promised her I would leave no card unplayed. “It’s time to be all-in.” And I was, and I did. Because the health care team was unable to respond appropriately — in the time she had left.

Is “respond appropriately” the right phrase? Could it be “respond meaningfully”? Did they give her a meaningful death? I have to answer, no. Some individuals were helpful. I kept my promise to her; I did everything I could. The system, overall, however, failed; it produced absurd results.

For the final six weeks of her life, Kate received hydromorphine through a pump that she carried on a belt around her waist. The pump fed the drug, seven times more powerful than morphine, through a tube and a needle that was implanted in her abdomen. The needle needed to be moved to a new site every couple of days.

At the end of April, Kate spent five nights in the hospital. She checked herself in because she wanted more investigation of her pain. The pump that she used had been installed by the community care nurse that visited her at home daily. Once in hospital, she had to have the home-care pump removed, and a similar (but different) hospital pump installed. Not too big a deal, except when it came time to go home.

She was addicted to a powerful painkiller, and the hospital would not re-install the home-care pump. So she couldn’t be discharged until a home-care nurse could be secured to meet us at home. The first nurse suggested we wait overnight until the morning nurse made the arrangements. No, we said. She wants to go home. She’s been here five nights already. So I called the home-care line, and (long story short) three hours later we grabbed a taxi and met the nurse on our doorstep and had the drug line re-inserted.

I remind you. Canada. Single-payer health care. Two pumps. One patient.

When the doctor signed Kate’s death certificate, under “cause of death” she wrote two words: “breast cancer.” The truth is, it was so much more, and beyond description.

So have parties for no reason, and make of life your own meaning, because the bureaucracies of the modern world are going to do nothing but frustrate you. Grind your signifiers to dust.


About a month before Kate died, I wrote on a piece of scrap paper: “What we know? What we don’t know?”

I can see now that we were, then, in a period of waiting. Waiting for the treatment(s) to stabilize her. Waiting for the disease to return. We had been told it would. She had triple-negative breast cancer. It had already metastasized from the breast to the liver to the bone.

Her disease was incurable, and the medical goal was to hold it off as long as possible.

What we knew: it would come back.

What we didn’t know: when it would come back. Also, what would happen in the meantime.

When I scribbled those questions on that scrap paper, my heart ached for knowledge and stung with ignorance. I felt up against the void. Looking off-stage for Godot. Where is he? Is he coming? Tomorrow?

I scribbled those questions because I wanted to capture something of what it felt to be in that place.

Kate blogged about her experience with cancer from beginning to end. The experience enriched her soul even as it attacked her body. She wrote marvelous personal essays about topics of immense diversity. She wrote about what it was to be infected with a terminal disease, to live up against the void.

We repeated our catchphrases: enjoy every sandwich, live for the moment, nowhere to go, nothing to do.

We repeated that death comes for all of us, and none of us knows when. So why not approach every day with joy and anticipation?

Always have hope. Always laugh. Always take cream in your coffee.

To say we lived deeply is an understatement. To say not everyone was able to follow us on the path is also true. Some found Kate’s blog too much. Some found her honesty in confronting the void overpowering. Some turned away because life is really, really busy, after all. Really busy.

One of the questions that has repeated in my mind since her death is the difference between figurative and literal language. I am a person of metaphor. It comes easily to me, and I enjoy it, and it is a nurturing part of my personality.

Kate’s death put my metaphorical language under immense stress. Which is shocking to me. Because how else to express the profundity of the experience, except through metaphor.

However, the child psychologists advise talking to children about death in literal terms. The heart has stopped. The body has ceased to function. Don’t say she’s gone to sleep, because they the children may fear sleep. Don’t say she’s gone to a better place, because then the children may want to go there, too.

Then there is the overwhelming amount of logistics that I became responsible for. Not just the managing of the health care team, but the managing of the post-death rituals: the visitation, the funeral, the burial, the reception. Child care for the funeral and reception, is something someone else tried to insist I provide, but I said no. Enough already.

For the two weeks prior to Kate’s death and the two weeks afterwards, my life was overwhelmed with action: do, do, do. There was no time to reflect. No time to contemplate. Literal language provides the closest distance between two points, and I felt like Michael Corleone in Godfather II, giving direction because I could — and it was needed.

I mentioned this odd sensation to my psychiatrist, and he said: “He didn’t want the job either.”

A-ha! There is someone who understands the basis of a good joke.

And Kate would have got it, too. And that’s what I think is the basis of this cycling question in my mind about the figurative versus the literal.

What is real? And what is not? What do we know? What do we not know?

Someone who lost a child to cancer told me that she cannot read fiction any more. I said, I cannot believe in non-fiction any more. All that I see to believe in is language. I see no basis to believe in anything else.

Virginia Woolf’s famous subjectivity swims all through Mrs. Dalloway and it seemed perfectly sensible to me. The “realist” alternative is one exemplified by the form from the pension administrators. Sorry for your loss, but get a lawyer to prove that you deserve it.

Horrendous! Outrageous!

But it will all be better when Godot gets here. Don’t you think?

(Life is a tale of sound and fury, told by an idiot, signifying nothing.)


“Hope is the thing with feathers.” – Emily Dickinson

This is where Kate would want me to end, with hope, not pessimism.

Also, with feminism.

Too many -isms!

I have a stack of Kate’s books that I’ve promised to give Naomi, Kate’s daughter, when she turns 16. Gloria Steinem titles dominate.

But there’s also Kate’s MA thesis: “Labours and Love: Issues of Domesticity and Marginalization in the Works of Paraskeva Clark” (Condordia, 1995).

And Framing Our Past: Canadian Women’s History in the Twentieth Century (McGill-Queen’s, 2001), edited by Kate along with Sharon Anne Cook and Lorna R. McLean.

Domesticity and marginalization, I would write a tome on that, and Kate knew it. I married her and her kids in 2006, and my writing all but stopped.

Caring for her through cancer did stop it.

As caring for an ill child stopped Clark’s artistic production.

Writing this essay is part of the process of reclaiming literature and a mind reflective enough to write. It’s about moving out of the literal, opening my mind again to metaphor.

Kate would appreciate all of this, but she would also say: Don’t whine, do.

Get on with it. Being. Doing. Living.

Don’t miss what is right in front of you because you’re too anxious about something happening at some point in the future. Tomorrow.

When I was younger (really younger), I struggled with what was more important: life or art. In her memoir Dancing on the Earth, Margaret Laurence choose life. Oscar Wilde chose art.

Now, I couldn’t tell you what the conflict is about. Everything is integrated. How can art exist without the context of life? How can life exist without art?

Art as meaning, even if it’s a communication of the absurd.

I resist mysticism, but I must be honest. Kate was curious about death. She thought she was going somewhere. She thought there would be other dead people there. She hoped so. There were some people she’d lost and wanted to see again. I told her that I would see her again. That was a new thought for me. I felt it with a conviction that it must be true.

“That’s why we’re married,” she said.

For Kate, meaning was in connection with others. Like Mrs. Dalloway. Like the quest for Godot. Meaning was in connection with the other. What it was, though, was unknown and possibly unknowable. But it was something that must always be quested for.

For her memorial service, I asked people to bake and bring cakes. I had no idea how many would come. I didn’t know if we would have too little or too much.

I wanted to put out the challenge and live with risk.

What happened was the miracle of the cakes. Sixty-five cakes! All individually baked and decorated.

A party. The arrival of Godot.



Two weeks after Kate died, I went to my local bank branch to cancel her bank card and VISA. I had to bring a copy of the proof of death and her will. Six weeks later my VISA statement arrived and Kate was still on it. I called VISA and they said that her account was still active. I cancelled it, I said. I went to the bank, and they cut her card in half and I signed a form. (A form! Is that itself not proof enough?!) The branch can’t cancel her account, the VISA lady said. Her account is still active. Do you want to cancel it? Do you have her card? No, I replied. They cut it in half six weeks ago when I cancelled her account. Her account is still active, she said. Do you want to cancel it? Yes, I said. Do you want to cancel yours, too? No, I said. You just give in, don’t you? You just give in to the literal and do whatever is required. Kate is dead, I wanted to say, to provide the conversation its context — and I, as far as I know, am still waiting for that release.

I’m heading to the book shelf now to pull down Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.

I’m tempted to ask for the rope, but the hope imperative intervenes.

The question is, To be or not to be….

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep–
No more–and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep–
To sleep–perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprise of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

—Michael Bryson


Michael Bryson, a frequent NC contributor, has been reviewing books for twenty years and publishing short stories almost as long. His latest publication is a story “Survival” at Found Press. Last fall he published an e-version of his novella Only A Lower Paradise: A Story About Fallen Angels and Confusion on Planet Earth. His other books are Thirteen Shades of Black and White (1999), The Lizard (2009) and How Many Girlfriends (2010). In 1999, he founded the online literary magazine, The Danforth Review, and published 26 issues of fiction, etcetera, before taking a break in 2009. TDR resumed publication last fall and is once again be accepting fiction submissions. He blogs at the Underground Book Club.

See also “Kate’s Song” written by Brooke Sturzenegger and Kate’s flikr albums.

And for the close, here is Warren Zevon’s appearance on Letterman where he said “enjoy every sandwich” —

Jul 232012

The aphorism is an ancient form, much ignored in the world of creative writing courses and commercial publishing but incredibly valuable in a writer’s repertoire of tools for its air of wisdom or arrogance. There is nothing like an aphorism in a piece of prose to nail a theme or a revery, to add wit and vigor. Numéro Cinq is trying to patch up the cultural hole. We have published original aphorisms (from The Devil’s Dictionary for Writers) by Steven Heighton and a collection of Russian aphorisms translated by Alex Cigale. And who can forget our aphorism contests (from the long gone days when we had energy to run contests — perhaps they will resurrect themselves)? Yahia Lababidi is an Egyptian-born aphorist, poet and essayist, a self-styled sayer of wise truths and provocative barbs. It’s a huge pleasure to present here a small selection of his oeuvre. See also below a link to an interview/conversation with Alex Stein on writing aphorisms.




A poem arrives like a hand in the dark.


The air is dense with stray spirits, swarming for soul.


Heart like a minefield, one misstep and…


Our life is like a long day; it’s easier to fall sleep if we have remained awake.


Every day we’re offered this world or the next; but one cannot be myopic and farsighted at once.


Sometimes presence of mind is to take a leave of absence.


Just be yourself, they say.  Which one, I think?


Part of the definition of an aphorist is one who spots aphorisms, and loosens them from the prose — the way Michelangelo described his sculpting process as freeing the angel from the marble.


Artists are parasites. Their independence is a myth tolerated by countless hosts.


What often strikes us in quotations is ourselves. How these great, dead writers could articulate our innermost longing before us.


Certain cherished books are like old loves. We didn’t part on bad terms; but it’s complicated, and would require too much effort to resume relations.


There is such a thing as spiritual clutter and hoarding, too.


Metaphysics: a fury for allegory.


Best not flirt with disaster lest she decide to commit.

— Yahia Lababidi

Egyptian-born, Yahia Lababidi is the author of three collections:  Signposts to Elsewhere (aphorisms), Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Bellydancing (essays) and Fever Dreams (poetry). Lababidi’s work has been widely published in US and international journals as well as being translated into several languages, including: Hebrew, Slovak, Spanish, German, and Italian. A juror for the 2012 Neustadt Prize for International Literature, his latest book project is a series of ecstatic, literary dialogues with Alex Stein, titled:  The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi.

Here is a link to a conversation from The Artist as Mystic, where the author discusses how he began writing aphorisms (among other things).

Jul 212012

In Bryn Chainey’s film for Alcoholic Faith Mission’s song “Legacy,” a young girl deals with the loss of her mouse through a thorough and committed exploration of corpse rites she titles “Death: Anthropological Studies.” Through this study she explores and interprets an eccentric range of funeral rituals, some cultural, some historic, and some made up, like when she explores the pyrotechnic possibility of a “Space Burial.” These rituals are at moments touching, at others funny, and, sometimes harrowing, as in the moment when the “Egyptian Burial” title card appears and brings with it the possibility of a young girl exploring the rather disgusting realities of mummification on her pet mouse. But harrowing and then sweet as she builds a suitable edifice for a mouse’s afterlife, assuming he’s not lactose intolerant.

Though it’s not confirmed, throughout is the sense that this is not her first experience with death. She has after all completed a book on the study. There’s even the possibility that she has lost as many mice as she has explored kinds of funerals rites. But none of that undermines this grief, for this mouse, as she reviews the rites in her book trying to find a satisfactory way to deal with this this loss.

Chainey’s short calls to mind Lynne Stopkewich’s film Kissed (1996) adapted from Barbara Gowdy’s short story “We So Seldom Look On Love,” the story of a young woman erotically obsessed with cadavers.

There the protagonist is fixated not on grief, but on the moment of transformation, from life to something opposite and sublime: “Some say there’s no soul, no afterlife, that life and death is the straightest line on the compass, and nothing more. I say believe what you want, because no matter what you do, cut everything up, burn it all down, you’re in the path of something beyond your control.” For the young girl in “Legacy,” the rites become a way of making meaning from this thing beyond her control.

There’s a Wes Anderson-ish aesthetic at play here with the encyclopedia entry title shots, the hyper organized yet densely populated and layered mise-en-scene, and the variety of askew (Dutch angle) and god’s-eye-view shots of her preparing the deceased mouse for its various rites and rituals. All these choices together persistently remind us that this is fiction, artifice, and that style, to some extent, is the thing here. These stylistic choices embody the girl’s contradictory desires: to express grief, but to do so from a (perhaps more comforting) stylistic distance.

The Wes Anderson-ish aesthetic is perfect for such an exploration, observing and stylized enough to remind us that we are watching art, not something documentary or too real. I tend to prefer this style when Anderson uses it with subject matter that ruptures the distance, like in The Darjeeling Limited, the tale of three brothers in search of their mother as a way of dealing with their loss of their father. When the distance and style rules, in films like his The Royal Tenenbaums, I find that prevents me from experiencing the story on a dramatic level, and instead leaves the audience skipping across the surface of the beauty and style of the piece.

In “Legacy,” this conflict between intellectual distance and emotional experience is key for the young woman seeking to understand her grief for the deceased mouse. In the end she exhausts and then abandons all these possible rituals in favour of exactly what she needs to do to express this grief. As gentle and poignant as her answer is, I find myself still yearning a little for the cheese.

— R. W. Gray

Jul 192012

Jane Eaton Hamilton: Photo by Shawna Fletcher


HERE IS A STORY.  It is true, but it is also full of lies.  And small axes, the kind that make tiny cross-hatchings on hearts.


A surgeon flayed open my wife’s chest and removed her breast:  stiches and staples. This was several years ago.  While she sleeps her scar unzips (top tape extension, top stop, slider, pull tab), her flesh unfolding like a sleeping bag. Some nights I only see the corset bones that girdle her lungs, gleaming moon slivers in murky red sky, and I say a prayer for them, those pale canoe ribs, those pickup sticks that are all that cinch her in.  I wish I could do that:  I wish I could hold her together.  Some nights I think she may fly away in all directions, north, east, south, west, a huge splatter.  She will go so far so fast I will only be able to watch with my mouth fallen open.  She’ll be gone, and all I’ll have is a big red mess to clean up and a sliver of rib sticking out of my eye.


Quiver trees are weird enough anyhow, but add a Sociable Weaver nest and you’ve got a real visual pickle. Warty, sponge toffee boils, these bird condos of dry grasses have upwards of 100 different holes for individual families; the nests can house 400 birds.  Interestingly, Sociable Weavers are polyamorous, even, apparently, with barbets and finches.

In Namaqualand, Cape Weavers go it individually.  The males court females by weaving testicular-like sacs, and if a female remains unimpressed, the male builds a second sac under the first, and etcetera, until a wind knocks the whole shebang down.

Bird-land, human-land—it’s all pretty much just jostling to get and keep the girl.


Some nights when my wife’s incision unzips, a rib extends and on it sits a yellow bird, swaying as if in a great wind, feathers ruffling to lemon combs.  I love birds.  It makes me happy to hear her song, the same way it makes me happy when my wife sings.  (Once when we were fresh, my wife danced naked through our kitchen belting out girl group songs from the 60s.) The little bird warbles and trills, then launches off the rib to fly around our bedroom.  She grabs a mosquito near my ear.  She flits into the corners, around the light fixtures, and carries back bits of yarn pulled from sweaters, spiderwebs, plastic pricetag spears, dust bunnies.  She constructs a nest, shivers down into it, and lays little gelatinous eggs, eggs that I trust, with a simple, guileless trust, will grow up to be lymph nodes for my wife.  These bird nights, I am happy, so happy. On some inchoate level, I know the little yellow bird has our backs, and I drift off to trills of sugary bird song.


I hang out on bird-lover websites, where questions abound:  Why are my lovebirds changing colour?  Aphids–my bird is okay with them, but I’m not? Lovebird feather plucking?

Feather loss, says Avian Web, is a difficult problem to cure when the picking behaviour is already establishedBirds should be presented to Dr Marshall at the first signs of picking.  My wife and I are feather-plucking. We didn’t go to Dr Marshall and maybe that’s our problem. Our relationship has thrush, bacteria, poor nutrition. My wife and I were once lovebirds.  Once, for a nanosecond, We Two Were One.  Then, for years, We Two Were One and A Half.  Eventually, We Two Were Two.  Now, the evidence suggests We Might Be Three.


Birds enchant me.  Once we took our daughter to a free flight aviary, the Lory Loft in Jurong Bird Park, Singapore.  Having a 20-hectare hillside park entirely devoted to birds is guaranteed to make someone like me giddy. Lories look like small parrots, and in the aviaries, as you whoop and wriggle and scream over suspension bridges high in the treetops, they land on you, they cover you.  It’s as if the keepers are up on the rooftop squeezing tubes of oil paint all over you, cadmium orange and cobalt blue and carmine and viridian, screechy territorial colours with a lot of wing flap and pecking.

Ornithologists at the park answer such questions as:  Will an ostrich egg support the weight of an adult human?  I grapple with this one:  Will my human heart support the shifting weight of my wife’s loyalties? 


Foraging:  The Way to Keep Your [Wife] Mentally Stimulated and Happy 

It’s me that forages.  Watch me some nights, thumbing through theatre tickets (Wicked!  The Vagina Monologues!  Avenue Q!  My Year of Magical Thinking!) and museum exhibitions (Dali: Painting and Film; Picasso and Britain; Carr, O’Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own) and the detritus that falls from her scar, stirring through wind-up rabbits and plastic zombies and voodoo dolls that tumble free, all the secrets and suffering that she hoards deep inside.

What am I looking for?  Something to eat, maybe.  Bird seed.  A steak.


We met a woman in Namibia who lost most of one breast to a crocodile attack.  She was a member of a polygamous tribe, the Himba, whose women wear only loincloths.  She bent down at the river with her water gourd, breasts hanging as breasts will do after a bunch of kids, and a croc’s teeth snapped closed on the right one.

Who knows what this woman’s husband thinks when he takes her shriveled, croc-mangled right breast into his hand? Does he trace her history with reverence?  Does he spit in disgust and choose another wife?


There are local stories of wives who change in the bathroom, wear bras and prosthetics to bed, and husbands who shun them.  There are stories of marital disintegration, and by that I mean what you probably assume: straight marriage.  I don’t know the stats for queer marriage breakups after breast cancer. I do know that even after twelve years, when my wife or I drive past the Cancer Agency, not even thinking about what happened, on our way to other appointments and sometimes in the midst of great happiness, one or other of us will burst into tears.


Vancouver has murders of crows, and our house is on their flight path. If you go outside in the dawn gloaming, such as when you are going for chemo, they fill a Hitchcockian sky with black shrieks, and if you could count them, you would run out of numbers before you’d run out of birds. Crows are not protected in BC, and their forest roost was recently ripped down to build a Costco; now tens of thousands roost in a tangle of electric wires and pallets of home building supplies.  Their noise is deafening.


Magic realism aside, my wife’s scar is really just a scar, plain, unremarkable, faded with time. (Plain, unremarkable.  I tell you.  Plain and unremarkable.) Here is the pedestrian truth:  she is sort of concave there where her breast once was, a hollowed-out nest.  She opted not to have a reconstruction.  Her one breast is very small and she goes braless without a prosthetic, which is a loud story, actually, the only blaring part of the reality-struck, pedestrian story:  she is obviously one-breasted, especially in t-shirts, and manly anyway, so people stare.  Last week at an art opening, a little boy about seven stopped from a dead run and ran his eyes up and down her, up and down her, up and down her, trying to make her make sense.

(These days, I do the same thing, rake my eyes across her.  The little boy is right: she no longer makes sense.  She is always saying goodbye with her actions while she smiles hello with her lips.)


 My heart is a big old blood pump with places engorged like a balloon (I’ve got a big old cardiomyopathy for you, I tell my wife sometimes, but it’s actually heart failure.)  My heart is giving up, and has necrotic spots like measles, dead bits which have been dead now for 25 years, what an anniversary: let’s have a cake and candles, happy necrosis to me!).  Referring to my circulatory system, a cardiologist once said to me:  The tree of you is dying.  No doubt too many polygamous weavers? How does this feel for you? my therapist asked about our lives (relationship) going—yes—tits up, three tits up I guess, instead of four, and here is the answer, my letter to my pain: It feels exactly like my heart is failing.  Right now it’s stuttering along arrhythmically, but it can’t pump through all these emotions and old, ruptured scars, so it may just keep engorging till I pop like a—




Once I co-owned a grey cockatiel named Hemingway. Hemingway would hop around my scapula and peck food from my teeth while molting grey feathers onto my breasts. He was a happy bird with a yellow comb, but he never wrote a great story as far as I know.


At the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, my wife ran at ostriches while the wild Benguela current tossed waves on the beach. Ostriches have a nail on each of their feet that is capable of slicing a person open as efficiently as any surgeon’s blade.  I was up on my toes with alarm, but the ostriches didn’t fight, they only ran, their stunted wings extended.  Then the male turned and knocked my wife flat.  He danced on her chest until his pea-sized brain got bored.

Just a game, just a game, she assured me afterwards, brushing off, none the worse for wear.  I wasn’t really dead. 

(This is a lie.)


At Okonjima for cheetahs, I was fascinated instead by the hornbills—those bills and casques!  Female hornbills use their droppings to seal themselves into their nests.  I did this too, when my wife was diagnosed, but I used an alarm system instead of poop.  I’m doing it again, now, but I’m using perimeter lighting, as if shining sunbeams into my wife’s shadows will keep my marriage intact.


My wife’s skin is numb, did I mention that?  That’s how her spirit must have healed from all that trauma (PTSD), don’t you think, with a big old numb spot? On the outside of her, cut nerves sometimes go crazy, like a pain orchestra, a violin screech, a flute shrill.  Yowey.  When I lay beside her and trail my finger across her chest, through her armpit, across the skin near her arm on her back, she can’t feel a thing.  Here? I say and she shakes her head.  NothingHere?  Still nothing.  Here?  Nope.  Here? Kinda, sorta, not really.

Does anyone ever really heal after being pushed out of the nest? Things repair, things scar, we go on, but eventually, we find ourselves in free fall anew. Our beaks impale the ground so we’re stuck flapping upside down like cat-lollipops.  All the old wounds break open, the old puncture holes (insect bites, that time we fell off our bikes, the tendonitis, the hernia) ooze. We’re all leaking pain.  We’re all bloody oozers, in the end, aren’t we?


One night as I lie beside my wife, her chest opens and I watch Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza.  The acrobats use my wife’s ribs as tightropes; the contortionists bend double through her ribs and poke their heads back out, like Gumbies.  The acrobat stacks chairs one atop another atop another atop another, and then climbs atop himself, fearless, while the chairs shake.  I laugh aloud in pure childish glee, and my wife awakens, coughs, and resettles as the performer tumbles.

When he’s scurried away, I rest my cheek in my wife’s loss, my sudden weight causing her to panic and sit bolt upright.  She rubs her eyes and peers at me.  You have the imprint of a zipper on your cheek, she mumbles.

I reach up and touch the corrugations.


I am at the “my this hurts” age, where “this” is really any body part you want to interject at random: ear, elbow, knuckle, knee, uterus. What relationship do I have to my pain? I find it hot like a combustion engine.  I find it has very droopy eyes, and shoulders that slope.  It sees me as prey, mostly, I’d guess, and comes at my heart with its little axe, cross-hatch, cross-hatch, like a Kite in the Serengeti dive-bombing to steal a sandwich from an unsuspecting tourist’s hands, talons gashing a cheek.  What relationship do I want to have in the future with my pain? I want to be its gay divorcée.


My wife drummed for a PSA a few weeks ago with a group of breast cancer survivors.  A murder of breast cancer survivors, they freaked me out with their black feathers and cawing.  I can’t handle what’s coming for them (for my wife). The prognosis for my wife’s breast cancer is good, but the last months she has had pain on swallowing, and the chant arrives in the rhythm of the children’s song: Eyes, ears, mouth and nose! Except for breast cancer mets it’s: Liver, lungs, breast and bone!  I’m not sure what the song for infidelity is….okay, I am, but I can’t sing it here.


Some nights my wife’s scar opens like Monet’s water lilies at L’Orangerie, a long wide strip of art that is all blue meditation and green silence.

Intending…  to…  heal, intones a monk in a saffron robe.

I must sit through my pain and gird my back.  I must go into my pain and through and beyond my pain.

And come out into art.

My own rendition of my wife’s lost breast is sliced into sections and presented like upright pieces of toast, the tumour glowing in phosphorescence across five slides.  Anatomical, direct, confrontational, weeping blood tears.

My Wife’s Breast, by Georgia O’Keefe: a striated red flower full of motion, a rib protruding at the nipple line.  My Wife’s Breast, by Pablo Picasso: a spiral breast sprouting hair, a breast with an eye instead of a nipple, a tumour instead of his model’s head. My Wife’s Breast, by Emily Carr: breast as swirling dark tree, tumour as bird’s nest. My Wife’s Breast, by Savadore Dali: a breast sitting on a rib, melting, a clock face ticking down her remaining days.  My Wife’s Breast, by Frieda Kahlo: my wife and I completely clothed, hand in hand, a large shadow to my wife’s left, our injuries showing through our t-shirts, a long red, swollen gash on my wife’s right side that pumps blood across a thick vein to my over-huge, engorged, arrhythmic heart while it pumps it back–a perfect silver tea service and a lorikeet on a table to one side.

—Jane Eaton Hamilton

Jane Eaton Hamilton is the author of Hunger, a 2002 collection of short fiction.  She is also the author of Jessica’s Elevator, Body Rain, Steam-Cleaning Love, and July Nights and Other Stories.  Her books have been shortlisted for the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction, the MIND Book Award, The Pat Lowther Award, The VanCity Award and The Ethel Wilson Prize in the BC Book Prizes.

Short pieces, which have appeared in such places as the New York Times, Maclean’s, Canadian Gardening, Fine Gardening, The Globe and Mail and Seventeen magazine as well as in numerous anthologies, have won the CBC Literary Awards, the Yellow Silk fiction award, the Paragraph fiction award, the Event non-fiction award, the Prism International fiction award (twice), the Belles Lettres essay award, the Grain non-fiction award, the This Magazine fiction award and The Canadian Poetry Chapbook Contest.  Stories have appeared in the Journey Prize Anthology and Best Canadian Short Stories, Tarcher Putnam’s The Spirit of Writing: Classic and Contemporary Essays Celebrating the Writing Life, and The Writer’s Presence (Bedford/St.Martin’s USA).  They have been short-listed for the Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Stories.

Jane blogs at janeeatonhamilton.wordpress.com.

Jul 182012

 Quebec author and publsher, Gilles Pellerin

 “Je vous présente Véronique” is a sly, comic, bitter very short story that twists and twists. The narrator and his wife arrive at a party separately. She is talking to someone else who introduces her to her husband without knowing their connection. The wife and husband play the game of strangers. Maybe they play too well. Maybe we shouldn’t play such games.

This is just one little story in a new selection by my old friend Gilles Pellerin, author, critic and publisher at Les Éditions l’instant même. See his twitter stories published earlier this year on, Le lit de Procruste.




Du moment qu’ils se sont brouillés, ils se sont mis à me téléphoner sans arrêt. Avec la même demande : « As-tu vu l’autre ? » – le prénom même était proscrit –, est-ce que je lui avais parlé ? Au début, je répondais non. « Je suis très occupé, pour ainsi dire jamais à la maison. » Je ne me suis jamais résolu à me procurer un téléphone portatif, me contenant d’une ligne sèche à la maison. Au bureau on ne doit sous aucun motif autre que professionnel me passer un coup de fil, la chose est universellement connue. Je ne Je raccrocherais immédiatement au nez de qui ferait entorse à ce principe, voulût-on m’annoncer le début de la Troisième Guerre mondiale. Je me suis inventé une vie trépidante : « La saison théâtrale est grandiose, je sors beaucoup, rentre tard et me couche aussitôt. – Seul ? – Évidemment. » Sur ce point, je ne mentais pas : aussi seul que le pronom personnel je. Ce qui serait à inventer chez moi, c’est des amis, une histoire d’amour, une histoire, une simple histoire.

Or, c’était la Troisième Guerre mondiale : les deux belligérants avaient choisi d’étendre leur querelle à l’ensemble de leurs relations et de constituer chacun ses alliances. La ligne de front s’était vite étendue à tout l’univers connu. Un peu plus et je demandais s’il ne conviendrait pas aux uns et aux autres de porter des couleurs distinctes afin que chacun se reconnaisse et sache à cent mètres d’avis s’il fallait sourire ou tourner les talons quand on rencontrait quelqu’un de leurs connaissances.

À la longue, je me suis rendu compte que leur inimitié me minait : appels et rencontres ne portaient que sur les torts et les défauts de l’autre. Il est plus facile de combattre que de tenter de faire la paix, semble-t-il. J’en ai appris au-delà de ce qui est raisonnable, j’avais droit à des largesses qui me faisaient l’effet de pots-de-vin. J’ai vriament multiplié mes soirées au théâtre et au concert car alors personne ne pouvait me joindre ni au téléphone ni à la maison. Comme j’étais leur seul ami commun, je me suis retrouvé seul dans le no man’s land et suis devenu suspect aux yeux des membres des deux saintes alliances, dont je me trouvais exclu. Pour m’en sortir, j’ai commencé à inventer des obligeances discrètes que l’un aurait manifestées à l’égard de l’autre, de timides appels de phares dont j’aurais été témoin et qu’il me semblait indispensable de transmettre au bénéfice de la paix à retrouver. Je n’ai jamais eu d’imagination : ce que je racontais était crédible, avait l’air réel. Je n’avais qu’à doser ces soi-disant confidences sur le mode du crescendo, à prêter à l’absent ce que j’avais moi-même le goût de dire (que notre ancienne amitié, notre amitié historique m’était chère) : ce n’était plus mes amis que j’avais devant moi, leur querelle avait vicié notre propre relation, je voulais que tout redevienne comme avant et j’ai tout mis sur le compte de l’autre, de son désir inavoué mais profond de tout effacer de cette brouille, de tout recommencer. Je tenais une histoire, pas la mienne, certes, mais une belle histoire de réconciliation dont nous bénéficierions tous. C’est en inventant que je m’en sortirais, que le téléphone se tairait enfin, que nous retrouverions nos soupers d’autrefois au-dessus d’un saumon grillé, au son des toasts et des rires.

Pour m’en sortir, je m’en suis sorti : le téléphone ne sonne plus, les réseaux se sont réconciliés, en me voyant chacun tourne les talons. Blâmes, travers, vilenies, petitesses, on a tout enterré, et moi avec, qui ai tout entendu.


Je vous présente Véronique

J’ai apprécié ce que j’ai d’abord attribué à l’humour : on me présentait Véronique – ma propre femme. J’allais établir l’équation entre elle et moi, en essayant d’être le plus diplomate possible, de ne pas faire sentir au type l’incongruité de sa démarche – j’ai horreur, en société, de sentir mes interlocuteurs mal à l’aise, encore plus si j’y suis pour quelque chose. Véro est parfois coquine : elle jouait le jeu. J’ai décidé d’en faire autant, mais avec moins de talent qu’elle, je dois l’avouer, à tel point que de-ci de-là au cours du cocktail, j’ai eu peur de la trahir par un signe de familiarité à son endroit. Je me suis évidemment abstenu de la toucher, ce qui n’était pas le cas de l’autre, encore moins l’embrasser : agirait-on ainsi avec celle qui était encore une inconnue quelques minutes auparavant ? Ce serait d’autant plus déplacé que personne ne me connaissait ni n’avait retenu mes nom et prénom quand j’avais salué les uns et les autres, oubli que je leur rendais bien, d’ailleurs.

L’embrasser, le désir m’en était cependant venu – j’utilise « désir » dans son acception forte –, ce qui m’a troublé : Véronique devenait-elle plus désirable du fait que la situation me la rendait étrangère ? Tantôt, elle était à côté de moi, tantôt elle disparaissait dans la foule, ainsi que dans les rêves la femme convoitée sait se défiler.

Les scénarios, même quand ils surgissent à l’improviste, finissent par se conclure : du coin de l’œil j’ai vu Véronique quitter la salle, saluer les uns et les autres, puis s’engager sur le trottoir en direction de l’auto – notre auto. Elle était venue en voiture de la maison, et moi à pied du travail, comme nous en avions convenu. Le bureau est à deux pas, ce qui au reste me permettait de partir un peu plus tard et de régler dans le calme le dossier qui m’avait occupé depuis quelques jours.

J’ai hâté le pas afin de la rejoindre – je pensais la prendre par le bras, la vouvoyer, lui demander si elle voyait quelque inconvénient à ce que je fasse un bout de chemin avec elle, avant d’y aller avec une proposition plus conséquente – vous êtes libre ce soir ? vous viendriez manger un morceau avec moi ? je connais un bistro plutôt sympathique, avec un éclairage tamisé tout ce qu’il y a de plus chouette. Tamisée, ma voix l’aurait été, mais Véronique s’est retournée brusquement, visage fermé, hostile, « maudit collant », tout de suite le téléphone cellulaire à la main, prête à composer le 9-1-1 qui donne accès à la centrale de police, l’endroit tout indiqué pour appeler à l’aide quand une femme est suivie par un importun qui s’approche d’elle à grands pas, dans le but évident de l’accoster.


Page blanche

Je voulais écrire des histoires sur les trains. J’ai acheté un carnet ligné à belle et forte reliure et un assortiment de stylos à encre bleue, plus un à l’encre noire pour les corrections et retouches, que j’espérais mineures tout de même. J’ai attendu que vienne la prose robuste dont je me sentais capable.

Rien. Ni prose ni histoire. Je vis dans une ville oubliée par le chemin de fer à l’époque où l’on en construisait. Qu’à cela ne tienne, j’ai déménagé, me suis installé près d’une gare, d’un Café de la gare comme il y en a cent, mille. J’y allais, carnet et stylo bleu à la main, prêt à capter l’impression brute – il serait toujours temps de faire des retouches, une fois de retour dans la quiétude de la maison. Je buvais lentement, aussi lentement l’autorisait la patience du personnel devant un client aussi parcimonieux. Rien.

J’ai pris l’habitude de prendre le train, d’aller dans la grande ville, observant les voyageurs, attentif au paysage qui défile plus ou moins vite de l’autre côté de la fenêtre. Chez nous le paysage varie peu, surtout que la grande ville est entourée par une plaine interminable, plantée de maïs à perte de vue. Les passagers : pour la moitié ils somnolent ou dorment, les autres racontent au téléphone qu’ils sont dans un train sans savoir où ils sont rendus ni à quelle heure ils vont arriver, certains sont rivés à leur ordi (film, jeu vidéo, film), quelques-uns lisent. Aucune phrase qui vienne à leur propos, surtout les lecteurs – y a-t-il quelque chose de moins littéraire, de plus plat ?

Pourtant je ne voyage pas en vain, attiré par la possibilité de tirer parti des dialogues muets des amoureux. Et là, lumineuse, l’idée : il faudrait épier (c’est déjà un pas plus loin que l’observation passive) ce qui se passe dans les wagons-lits, surprendre les secrets d’alcôve. Exécution : je me suis engagé à la compagnie de chemin de fer, j’arpente les voitures, de nuit ou de jour, au gré de mes quarts de travail. Je poinçonne les billets, les place sous la bande métallique qui court sur le porte-bagages au-dessus des banquettes afin de savoir qui descend où et de réveiller, le cas échéant, le voyageur assoupi.

Hier un passager a passé tout son temps à écrire dans un carnet vert bouteille, les yeux perdus dans le vague. De temps en temps, il refermait le cahier, pour le rouvrir aussitôt, saisi par l’inspiration, esclave heureux obéissant à la voix impérative des pages encore blanches. C’est décidé, demain j’achète un beau carnet vert bouteille comme le sien, à forte reliure, ainsi qu’un crayon bleu. Le noir me paraît désormais superflu.


Les drames de l’automne

Il y avait des champs de blé d’Inde près de la maison où j’ai grandi. Et des boisés plongeant vers la rivière, de part et d’autre de la Saint-Maurice. Des amis, nés ailleurs, prétendent que c’est une région faite pour l’automne. Papa, mauricien depuis quatre générations, ne disait rien à ce propos : la nature chamoirée avait toujours fait partie de son univers, même avant sa naissance.

Il m’a fallu partir de la Mauricie et atteindre la quarantaine pour éprouver pleinement (mais peut-être la sensation sera-t-elle encore plus forte dans quarante ans ?) le drame de l’automne. La blondeur du maïs que le vent agite alors que le ciel bas est alourdi de nuages gris-bleu me remplit d’une magnifique et tendre terreur. Petit je n’ai jamais vu pareil spectacle, je n’ai jamais été au cœur de cette scène où l’horizon ressemble à un amoncellement d’édredons fripés prêts à ensevelir des pâturages et des champs duveteux – et moi aussi. La forêt n’est pas encore dégarnie, les ombres se mettent à exister individuellement grâce à leurs coloris distincts, même ceux qui semblent ne pas avoir changé de couleur.

La Mauricie était féconde, mais il aura fallu que je n’y vive plus, que je ne sois plus témoin d’un spectacle que sa permanence même soustrayait à mes yeux, fallu que ma vue se détériore pour que la vue me soit donnée. J’avais de meilleurs yeux en ce temps-là, mais il me semble qu’ils n’ont rien perçu de l’enchevêtrement de mélèzes et de bouleaux dans la plée ni du peuple serré des hêtres à La Gabelle. Je sais aussi, depuis la mort de papa, que je regarde pour lui et pour moi. Son silence nourrit mon langage, son silence devient mon langage.

Je vis à Québec. Parfois, dans ma rue même, j’éprouve la sensation de marcher, d’être à Québec, ce qui relève de la banalité, du truisme le plus agréable qui soit et que j’appellerai le présent de l’indicatif. Impression d’arrêter le temps. Je sais où trouver des mélèzes de rue, domestiques, et m’en contenter. Le présent n’a pas toujours existé pour moi ; maintenant je puis dire « éprouver » en toute connaissance de ce que cela tient de la preuve : je lève les yeux sur le panneau qui confirme le nom de la rue. Je redeviens un bref instant l’enfant que j’ai été, en visite à Québec chez le frère de ma mère, sans cesser d’être un homme circulant dans une ville réconfortante. Les arbres au-dessus de nos têtes, les voitures ondoyant sur les faux plats du chemin Sainte-Foy, l’idée même de chemin à deux pas de la maison où je suis à mon tour un père silencieux quant aux choses essentielles de la vie – peut-être appartient-il à chacun de les reconnaître, sans attendre de l’aide de son père ni de qui que ce soit.

Tout cela me revient parfois exactement comme à l’époque où je n’étais qu’un visiteur. Il se jouait ici une partition qui m’était inconnue, les arbres ne viraient pas au jaune et au rouge de la même manière, un épisode moins intense qu’un drame. En contrepartie, je reconnais mes angoisses d’alors, dans la rue, à bicyclette ou à pied, quand me cernait la lumière trop vive de l’été d’une petite ville de banlieue mauricienne, qu’aucun arbre ne venait filtrer dans notre quartier. Des souvenirs de maisons en construction me reviennent. Elles me faisaient peur, y compris la nôtre, toute neuve, craquant de tous ses os par grand froid, et la forêt à deux pas, noire par contraste avant de prendre feu sous l’effet de l’automne, et les champs de blé d’Inde marchant comme des cohortes sous le vent.

J’habite une vieille maison, je retourne dans les rues trop claires de mon enfance pour le plaisir de laisser remonter les malaises muets.

Je comprends que je n’étais pas fait pour être neuf.


Il est venu après moi

Il est venu après moi, mais le résultat est le même : elle s’est sentie à l’étroit, puis elle a pris ses distances, ce contre quoi il a protesté, elle a haussé le ton et ils se sont quittés. « Elle a un de ces caractères. » Venant de lui, de sa voix de crapaud dépressif, avec la mimique qui rejette tout le blâme sur Mireille, le constat m’irrite. Un tempérament bouillant, j’en conviens sans mal, mais on ne parle pas ainsi d’une femme, d’une femme qu’on a fréquentée, pas les côtelettes à l’air sous la douche d’un centre sportif, après une séance de conditionnement physique, en présence d’un type, moi, qui sort du court de badminton. Comme s’il ne savait qui je suis, qui j’ai été pour Mireille.

À l’époque j’ai mis un certain temps à comprendre que c’est pour ce type qu’elle m’a largué. Nous traversions une période de reproches mutuels, nos accrochages se multipliaient même si j’avais l’impression de mettre de l’eau dans mon vin comme jamais auparavant. Elle s’est mise à espacer ses invitations et ses visites chez moi, mais je ne renonçais à rien de ce que j’avais échafaudé pour nous deux. Déjà, en temps de paix, Mimi me résistait comme personne ne m’avait résisté, mais cela contribuait à l’affection que je lui portais – c’est le terme édulcoré qui a fini par s’imposer après qu’elle a décrété que j’avais franchi la ligne de non-retour en lui parlant de mon amour pour elle. Reculer devant pareille affaire de sémantique, j’en étais capable – d’où « affection » –, mais il était trop tard : en fait de non-retour, il s’agissait du sien, elle a claqué la porte, « Si j’oublie du linge, tu en feras un sac que je viendrai chercher un de ces quatre ». Tout un tempérament, oui.

Elle partie, j’ai dressé l’inventaire de ses défauts comme de ses traîneries, jeté le voile sur ses irrésistibles qualités, voulu oublier le gouffre des réconciliations dans lequel nous nous abîmions, rescapés de la mort, prêts pour une renaissance qui n’était jamais que le recommencement du cercle de notre perdition perpétuelle. Dans ces conditions, impossible de parler d’amour ni d’affection, mais de passion – je parle pour moi.

Elle n’est pas venue prendre ses vêtements. Je les ai toujours.

• • •

Je commence par traîner sous le jet d’eau chaude, dans l’espoir qu’il se lasse. Quand j’adopte la tactique inverse, le mouvement subit vers le vestiaire, il me suit. Il reprend la conversation, cette question de caractère, mais dans son application intime : « une sacrée gonzesse » – c’est fou ce que le recours à l’argot français donne du relief à la dimension sexuelle : « une bombe, cette nana ». Et « des seins de compétition », tout juste s’il ne me donne pas la pointure du soutien-gorge. Il me parle d’elle comme si lui et moi avions partagé un même bonheur, un même bien. Évidemment, puisque nous avons partagé du « temps commun ». La crainte me vient, une crainte acide et laide, qu’elle lui ait raconté pour elle et moi, au lit je veux dire : les derniers temps, nous avions la chair triste.

Je n’ai jamais noué une cravate aussi prestement, mais je n’arrive pas à le semer pour autant, il se cramponne, en forme, la mine superbe : « En définitive, je t’ai sorti d’impasse, je t’ai débarrassé d’une harpie. Tu m’en dois une, mon vieux. »


Des nouvelles

Il n’était pas sitôt assis à table qu’il m’a demandé des nouvelles de Denise, ce qui est assez normal quand on a été marié une dizaine d’années à la sœur de celui chez qui l’on est reçu.

Je ne me suis pas converti aux usages modernes, j’observe la coutume ancienne de tout faire dans la grande pièce servant à la fois de cuisine et de salle à manger, souvenir d’une époque où le salon était tenu fermé, sauf pour les grandes occasions, ce que ne saurait être la visite de celui qui a jadis été mon beau-frère. Andrée, pour qui l’apéro devrait être pris au salon plutôt que dans la pièce où tantôt on mangera, réprouve ce reliquat de paysannerie, surtout quand on habite comme nous un condo. J’avais cependant besoin de compter devant moi sur la solidité de la table pour raconter à Raymond ce qu’il en était de l’état de santé de son ancienne épouse. C’est tout de même la raison pour laquelle je l’avais invité à venir souper – je tiens aussi au vieux terme – à la maison lorsque nous nous étions croisés au centre commercial plus tôt ce samedi-là : de toute évidence il n’était au courant de rien. Denise et lui ont rompu de façon fracassante, elle est partie vivre à Montréal, loin de lui, loin de tout.

Il m’a été infiniment pénible de faire le récit du cancer qui décharne Denise, comme m’est insupportable la maladie même de ma petite sœur. J’arrive mal à rapporter les événements, je me rends compte que j’ai besoin de les ordonner au nom d’une logique qui me fait défaut : Denise n’a jamais fumé et voilà que les poumons sont atteints, puis tout le reste, jusqu’au cerveau. Une fois, après un traitement de chimio, j’ai cru, voulu croire que ça y était, que la maladie avait rebroussé chemin, qu’elle ne laisserait que le mauvais souvenir d’une tête rasée, que Denise nous revenait. J’ai vite déchanté.

« Combien de temps encore ?

– Quelques semaines, trois mois tout au plus. »

Je me demande s’il la reconnaîtrait. Denise affichait une physionomie de rieuse, ce qu’elle était ; toute rondeur a désormais disparu. Ce jour-là, elle avait trouvé à rigoler des traitements qui avaient mobilisé une équipe complète d’« artilleurs ». De piètres coloristes, à l’en croire, et pires dessinateurs encore. Elle a trouvé le moyen de rire en parlant de son crâne comme d’une œuvre rupestre.

Un temps il m’a semblé que son caractère était assorti à celui de son mari. Lui : bon bougre, parfois naïf d’une naïveté que Denise avait qualifiée de feinte une fois la rupture consommée ; elle : prompte à la colère et tout autant à la réconciliation. Elle lui avait pardonné toutes ses frasques, ses fréquentations peu recommandables, ses lubies pour des entreprises hasardeuses desquelles elle arrivait à l’arracher avant qu’il n’y laisse sa (leur) chemise. Puis, non. Le mur de béton à propos de ce qui ne me semblait pas pire que les autres fois. J’imagine qu’elle avait tracé une frontière que Raymond n’avait pas su respecter. Je ne m’étais jamais tout à fait senti à l’aise en sa présence, mais lui en tenais peu rigueur : un beau-frère peut-il être autre chose qu’une acceptable calamité ? (Le frère d’Andrée est du même avis en ce qui me concerne.)

Le cancer a dénaturé Denise en plus de la rendre méconnaissable. La bête s’emploie à rejeter ma sœur hors du monde en la remplaçant par une fausse Denise, un simulacre. La femme forte n’est plus, celle qui me faisait des blagues au téléphone en se faisant passer pour la préposée d’une société de sondages imbéciles auxquels je me laissais prendre, celle qui amenait ses neveux au cinéma en les cajolant comme les enfants qu’elle n’aurait pas, convaincue qu’elle ne serait pas une bonne mère, la Denise qui se meurt n’a plus la force de rire ni même de regarder la télé.

Je n’ai pas tout rapporté. Il était sans doute inutile de raconter que parfois Denise trouve la force de gueuler contre l’évidente injustice qui la frappe – je ne l’ai vue qu’une fois aussi bouillonnante de colère : quand elle a laissé son médiocre et fourbe mari – à petite queue, hâbleur, brouillon, fourbe, menteur, malpropre, etc.

Raymond ne m’a pas interrompu, il a tout écouté sans broncher. Nous avons soupé en faisant semblant qu’il y avait d’autres sujets de conversation : lui, par exemple. « Que deviens-tu ? – Du pareil au même. » Nous n’en avons pas appris davantage d’un homme que nous n’avions plus vu depuis des années. Je ne me suis pas rendu compte de la vitesse à laquelle défilaient les bouteilles de vin. À la fin de la soirée, il était imprudent, inconvenant de le laisser partir. Quelqu’un à prévenir qu’il coucherait chez nous ? Personne. Il nous a souhaité bonne nuit, s’est couché. Avant d’en faire autant je suis repassé par la crise de larmes qui me perfore régulièrement.

Au matin, je n’étais pas frais. Je prépare le café. L’odeur le tire à son tour du lit. Il n’est pas sitôt assis à table qu’il me demande des nouvelles de Denise.

 — Gilles Pellerin


Depuis 1982, Gilles Pellerin a publié cinq recueils de nouvelles, le plus récent étant ï (i tréma), paru en 2004, dans le prolongement duquel  sera i (i carré). Son travail récent l’a amené du côté de l’essai, conséquence logique de son engagement dans la diversité culturelle et la défense de la langue. Membre de l’Académie des Lettres du Québec et de l’ Ordre des francophones d’Amérique, il a été fait chevalier des Arts et lettres de la République française et reçu le prix du Rayonnement international des lettres de Belgique. Né à Shawinigan, Gilles Pellerin habite Québec depuis près de 40 ans.

Jul 172012

A Partial History of Lost Causes (Dial Press, 2012), Jennifer duBoishighly praised debut novel, is the story of Aleksandr Bezetov, a Russian chess prodigy who comes of age in the late stages of the Brezhnev era and rises to prominence as a world champion before taking up the doomed cause of opposition to Vladimir Putin’s political machine. But Bezetov’s story is braided in with the story of Irina Ellison, a young American woman, doomed to a certain and early death, who has come to Russia trying, for one last time, to find meaning in her truncated existence.

Chess informs this story, not so much directly in its playing, but as a kind of metaphor for the complex and layered relationships and shifting dimensions of the real and the possible her characters, and through them, the readers, experience. The remarkable clarity of duBois’ writing — at all times, the reader is aware of all the pieces in play and their constantly changing situations — further strengthens this connection to the game. And yet, for all the ways in which she makes clear the architectural conception of her story, she still manages to infuse the gritty realities she depicts of Bezetov’s life in St. Petersburg in the late stages of the Soviet Union — the kommunulka with its shared kitchens and its black-clad prostitutes banging on the building super’s door, the furtive dissidents Aleksandr comes to share vodka and plot with in the bar called Saigon – with a luminosity that can fairly be described as magical.

Read my review of the novel at the Washington Independent Review of Books. Author photo by Ilana Panich-Linsman.

—Rimas Blekaitas


Q: Vladimir Putin and his political machine figures prominently in the second half of your book. How do you go about including an active and controversial world figure into the fictive logic of your novel? What potential drawbacks did you think you wrestled with in doing this?

A: In my first draft of the book, I didn’t use Putin’s name, even though that was clearly who the character was meant to be, and some people thought this compromised the novel’s universe—the book is located very firmly in the realities of Russian politics and history, so it was pretty jarring for readers to suddenly enter an alternate world where some fictional creation succeeded Yeltsin. What was tricky about using Putin’s actual name is that Irina and Aleksandr basically manage to prove a conspiracy theory about him—a theory that in real life is widely held but absolutely unverified. So that whole plot line is a strange blend of pretty meticulously researched and faithfully reported information about real suspicions surrounding Putin, and then a wholly invented episode in which the characters confirm those suspicions. My worry wasn’t that I would be slandering Putin—it’s a work of fiction and he’s a public figure—but I did worry that some readers might come away from the book with a sense that Putin’s involvement in those bombings was far more certain than it actually is. But I think most readers kind of intuitively make a distinction between a political and historical landscape that’s grounded in reality and the fictional actions of made-up people, or even real people, within that landscape—for example, I’m reading Don DeLillo’s Libra right now, which is partly told from the point of view of Lee Harvey Oswald, and that difference is pretty easy to feel.

Q: There are many ways in which you, in keeping with your characters sensibilities, bring chess into the text. Here is one passage that beautifully brings several of your themes together:

“Walking along the river, he is struck again by the nearness of the future. It’s just beyond his vision, but it is there…He can sense it, like the sketched suggestion of an undiscovered country emerging in the mist, or the shape of an endgame materializing somewhere deep in his psyche.”

Although chess is important in your novel, little of the text goes into actual matches or chess situations. Did you, at one point or in earlier drafts, consider including more actual chess action?

A: I wanted very much to write about chess in a way that would feel convincing to a serious chess player but would still be interesting to a non-chess player, so I tried to narrate in detail only those matches that had a lot of emotional resonance for the characters. The match that makes Aleksandr a world champion gets a lot of attention, for example, as does his loss to the Deep Blue computer game; the moves in those games are described carefully, but you don’t need to be following them to understand the enormous amount that’s at stake for Aleksandr in those moments. I also tried to include a few details and in-jokes here and there that only serious chess enthusiasts would really enjoy—incorporating the actual moves from Kasparov’s matches versus Deep Blue and Karpov, putting important turns from other famous games elsewhere in the story (as when Aleksandr beats his instructor at the chess academy)—and I hoped that doing that would provide a layer of subtext for those people without making everyone else run away screaming.

Q: At your website, reader’s groups are invited to explore how your novel is structured like a chess match. In his preface to his own chess novel, “The Defense,” Nabokov calls the reader’s attention to certain moves he makes as an author. Do you find yourself feeling, as an author, that you are engaged in a chess match of sorts with your readers? How might this be true in your novel?

A: I don’t feel like I’m engaged in a chess match with readers, but I do think chess informs the book’s structure. Aleksandr and Irina’s relationship to the Putin regime is adversarial, of course, and there are moments when they make moves—and, at the end, sacrifices—that have a certain chess logic to them. The chapters alternate between Aleksandr and Irina’s points of view, which is a bit like a chess match; I realized after drafting the book that the characters are often doing things that are in some way thematically reactive or responsive to what the other one did in the previous chapter, even before they meet. Hopefully the plot’s unspooling feels like a chess game in that the events are unpredictable and at the same time firmly grounded within the logical parameters of what’s come before. Flannery O’Connor said that the best story endings are both surprising and inevitable, and it occurs to me now that the best chess moves probably are, too.

Q: What is it about chess, or any deeply absorbing and imaginative activity like it, that made you, as a writer, want to hang out with these chess playing characters of yours for the duration of a novel project?

A: I suppose there are some similarities between writing and playing chess—they’re both very solitary pursuits where you just kind of sit there consumed with something that’s essentially not real and anyone watching you would think you’re insane and/or inert—so maybe that’s something that drew me to Aleksandr, or that I understood about him, even though I’m not much of a chess player myself. There’s also something so interesting to me (and to everyone, I think) about people who are truly brilliant at what they do, and brilliant chess players are especially interesting because they often seem marked for brilliance in this way that’s very hard to understand—they often come to it as small children and then shape their rest of their lives around it. Gary Kasparov, for example, saw a chess problem in a newspaper at age four and somehow solved it, and that was it—chess was going to be his life. To me, this is so much weirder than some general athletic or verbal or mathematic aptitude that a child might grow up to develop in a variety of ways. Great chess players don’t just fall in love with the game—they somehow seem to already recognize it when they find it. Which is absolutely fascinating, in part because it makes no sense.

Q: One of the protagonists in your novel, the young American woman Irina, is also a member of a special club of sorts, the club of people who, having been given a diagnosis of an incurable and degenerative disease, know how, and roughly when, they are going to die. This knowledge has rendered her seemingly incapable of committing to deep friendship or love back home in America, even as she is searching for a way to grab some meaning for her life.

In the end, she does commit herself by self-consciously making herself into a sort of piece in a larger political game. In doing this, she is able to preserve, for the most part, her emotional remove.

There is this particularly powerful passage after she has made her big move in the game of Aleksandr’s politics and after she, herself has begun to show unmistakable signs of the onset of her disease:

“I lean back in my seat, and I feel the hoisting of the plane, its resilience against, the whirring cold, the forbidding blue. The pilot banks to the side, and we are casting an improbably detailed shadow on the countryside; we look like the approach of a mythical bird or an avenging god. Beneath us there must by the rifling of grass against soil, the frenzied roiling of pale-edged leaves. But we can’t see those things anymore.

“I think, although I am not sure, that my hands are shaking more than usual, beginning to thread forward of their own account ever more audaciously. I watch. I put my hand on the pullout tray, and they tremble and jump.

“But then again, maybe it’s not pathological. It could just be reverential. It could just be the beauty of the sky and the clouds-the miracle of morning, the heresy of aviation.”

The passage of course is made all the more poignant by what we already feel will inevitably happen to that flight. She has made herself into a chess piece in an endgame, an abstraction and that seems to be her way of mattering in this world. And yet, she does make a connection to another character near the end. Throughout the novel, you seem to play with moving between the real and direct and the abstract. Do you see this movement as one of the thematic elements in this novel?

A: When we meet Irina, she’s unable to find meaning in her life since she knows she’s positive for Huntington’s disease, and your formulation about the tension between the abstract and the concrete is a really great way to frame this problem. Death is a certainty for everyone and yet it’s also this really abstract thing that no one can actually wrap their heads around—really, we’re all just taking everyone’s word for it that this will happen to us. For Irina, this looming abstraction becomes much realer to her than the concrete elements of her actual life. She has terrible difficulty finding emotional connection in anything transitory (or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that she is too afraid and too stubborn to try)—and since everything is transitory for everyone, not just Irina, she’s got a real problem. But I actually see Irina’s ending as a rejection, or reversal, of this way of thinking; I don’t think she’s throwing herself into the abstract or the theoretical at all. Instead, I see it her actions at the end as her finally wholly investing in, and giving herself completely to, something that is very real, even though it’s nearly certain that what she’s trying to do won’t work (and it’s absolutely certain that, even if it does, she won’t be around to know it). To me, the ending is where Irina stops seeing everything in such abstract terms; the paragraph that you quoted is a moment where she is fully in the world and, finally, fully in her life.

—Rimas Blekaitis & Jennifer duBois


Rimas Blekaitis recently completed his MFA in Writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He works as a software engineer and lives in Washington, DC. Rimas writes poetry and fiction and is currently working on his first novel.

Jennifer duBois, born in 1983, earned an M.F.A. in fiction from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop after having completed an undergraduate degree in political science and philosophy from Tufts University. She was awarded a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford which she has recently completed, staying on at the university as the Nancy Packer Lecturer in Continuing Studies. Her fiction has been, or soon will be, published in Playboy, The Missouri Review, The Kenyon Review, The Florida Review, The Northwest Review, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, and FiveChapters.

Jul 162012

What is it like to be a brainy woman, lost in a world of books and ideas, pursuing the ineffable and the impossible under the gaze of great men? Herewith a scene from Unfolded, a new novel by my old friend Sheridan Hay, author of The Secret of Lost Things and the short story “Arise and Go Now” which appeared on these pages last year. In this scene we meet Delia Bacon, the gifted and scandalous 19th century American scholar/author who knew the greats of her era and went mad trying to prove that Shakespeare did not write his own plays. She published a 682-page book to explain her theory. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who appears in this scene with Delia, said of her: “no author ever hoped so confidently as she; none ever failed more utterly.”

(The black and white photo above is by Marion Ettlinger.)



As night faded from the front windows, a pallid dawn filled them.  She prepared for his visit.  Leaning over the porcelain bowl to wash her face, she read an indecipherable text in its cracks.

It would take hours to prepare because she must rest after each task.  Moving in increments of will, stars burst beneath her eyelids if she went too quickly.  Her hands seemed independent, taking up a hairbrush, a washcloth, the buttonhook.  Every object in the room seemed far off and yet she saw with utter clarity, as if magnified.

Of her two good dresses, both now fell from her body.  Needing no corset, she set it aside.  Her bosom had flattened and a hollow marked the center of her chest.  She chose the black silk.  Its sheen was dull, like the coal she could not afford to burn, and whale stays gave it shape.

She took half an hour to arrange her hair, combing it through with water.  Straightening her collar, she pinned a paste brooch at its center.  She could not avoid the mirror:  You go not, till I set you up a glass where you may see the inmost part of you.  She was so altered as to be wholly unacquainted with who she had become.

Mr. Hawthorne would meet her revenant.

By afternoon she lay on the bed, hands trembling.  She considered calling down to the Walker’s to refuse Mr. Hawthorne entry to the house.  She has enough presence of mind to notice that anxiety makes one stupid. She would need calm in order to impress. Mr. Hawthorne had extended funds and Delia needed more than funds, she needed his good name.

His foot was on the stair.  Mrs. Walker chattered away, breathless from the climb.  He was ushered into the front room.  She listened through the door.

“Mr. Hawthorne to see Miss Bacon,” Mrs. Walker called.  A chair scraped the floor.  Pages turned, he cleared his throat several times, but was otherwise silent.  She felt the nervousness that used to precede her lectures in New York, when close to two hundred faces stared back from the long hall.  Then, she had needed no notes; confidence had been a trick with her, and knowledge — the drumming into her brain of detail, of fact.

He stood as she entered, bowed.  She had kept him waiting for longer than was polite, but no amount of time could have prepared her for his face.

Mr. Hawthorne was beautiful.

She stammered an apology, momentarily disarmed.

He did not speak at first, but motioned, pulling out the chair.  Dark, thick hair was mixed with gray, and a brown moustache extended above a delicate mouth.  He was tall, and wore a black frock coat; at his throat was a knotted scarf of white silk.  She stared at his immaculate neckerchief as if she might disappear into its folds.

She thought it the prerogative of the recluse to be frank and it was with utter guilelessness that she gazed at him.  But she felt that it was in fact mere loneliness that had robbed her of necessary pretense and Delia was suddenly ashamed – of her appearance, of her poor rooms, of what she needed from him.

“I have become picturesque!”  She blurted, sitting down.

He smiled with great gentleness.

“Not at all, not at all.  Thank you for seeing me, Miss Bacon.”

She took the hand extended.  It was warm and soft and enveloped her own.  He gave her back her courage with his touch.

“I have enjoyed our communications.  Your enterprise interests me very much.  But I am surprised.  I had thought you older and not a young woman at all.”

Her eyes filled with tears for she saw he was sincere.  He smiled again and she averted her gaze for fear of dissolving under his consideration.  He drew up the only other chair in the room.

He’d had time to take in the piles of books on the study table – Raleigh’s History of the World, Montaigne’s Essays, Bacon’s Letters, Essays, and Meditations, a volume of the plays, a well used pocket Bible.  More books were stacked on the floor.  A large roll of manuscript lay partially unfurled.  Lists neatly proclaimed their facts.  A paper knife to cut pages lay across notes.  She had the odd sensation of seeing these objects anew, and seeing too that their arrangement appeared theatrical — a stage with pen and ink-glass set aside, mid-composition.

In fact, here was the site of a great battle.  She thought how strange it is when one’s intensions take on the appearance of staginess, as if one’s life is a fiction – oneself an actor.  The scene, even to Delia, was suggestive of Mr. Hawthorne’s own Romances.

The vitality of his presence momentarily confused her and she sat in the chair as if she were the guest – a visitor to her own rooms.

She thanked him for coming and for his notes and told him he had sustained her at a time of great trial.

“I have been looking at your sources, and can only remark on your impressive scholarship,” he began, indicating the books.   “Your reading of Montaigne is particularly fine.”

She nodded.  This was of course the case.

“And the connections you draw between Plutarch and Shakespeare, between Bacon and classical literature are certainly provocative.”

“But you do not share my faith?”  she asked, recovering herself.

 “I do not,” he said.   “I do not share your faith.  But let me say that I think you nobly careless of authority, Miss Bacon.”

 “And yet you offer help.”  She felt encouraged by his interest if not his opinion.

 “When I wrote to you, I expressed a fact which I firmly believe.  Yours is an undertaking that must be valued.  You are a gifted interpreter of Shakespeare’s plays, whoever wrote them.”

 This would not do.

 “Perhaps when you have read more of my philosophy you will feel that you know who did?”

 “I am here at your service, Miss Bacon.  My wife, Sophia, is already an ardent supporter, based upon the chapter you sent.  And it is true that what sometimes seems most far from us is most our own to claim … but I am not of the converting kind.”

 “It is not necessary that I should convey to others at once all the grounds of that absolute certainty on which my proceeding rests,” she told him, gripping the table’s edge.   “It is enough for me to know, past all doubt, that it is as true as I am.  I don’t expect you to follow, but I appreciate that Mrs. Hawthorne is a discerning woman.”

“That she is,” he said, smiling.

“Francis Bacon wrote that an immense ocean surrounds the island of Truth, Mr. Hawthorne,” Delia went on.  “I cannot expect you to arrive on my island without an experience of the sea.”

He almost laughed.

“I would like to send you the chapter on Lear, after I make a fair copy, and after you’ve read that, the chapters on Julius Caesar and Coriolanus.  You will see that my work is the discovery of Modern Science, the buried discovery which the necessities of this time have cried to heaven for, and not in vain.”

She brightened as she spoke, and gathered strength, but feared that he held little interest in the vagaries of her philosophy.  Yet something in her manner compelled.  What questions orthodoxy, she knew, was potent to him.  She saw he felt her truth.

“Miss Bacon,” he said.  “I feel that Shakespeare’s work presents so many phases of reality that his symbols admit an inexhaustible variety of interpretation… “

“You mistake the essence of my theory, Mr. Hawthorne.” She corrected him.   “The history plays are a chronicle, a great whole.  I am a teacher of history, you understand.  It is because I have taught history that I was able to see the plays as a school, a school in which the common people would be taught visible history, with illustrations as large as life.  All the world’s a stage was a cliché but not a metaphor.  The plays are a magic lantern that depict and illuminate Bacon’s world.”

“But a magic lantern is called magic for a reason, Miss Bacon.  It enlarges and also distorts; it makes a fairy world of shadows, and the truth is in the spell it casts not the reality it depicts.”

Viola slunk in, tilting her triangle head up at Mr. Hawthorne.  She let out a cry.

“Ah, you disagree, Mr. Cat,” he said, addressing the animal at his feet.  She wailed again and rubbed her face against the edge of his boot.

“That’s Madame Cat,” Delia corrected.   “The mother of many tribes.  I call her Viola, because I too thought her male at first.  She was in disguise to win me.  The landlord calls her something else, of course.”

“You make my point,” Hawthorne said quickly.   “You might have called her Ganymede or Rosalind.  The thing is itself with or without a proper name …”

“Not at all,” she shot back.   “Shakespeare may well have been the name of a cat, but Bacon was the name of the author of these plays.”

For emphasis she placed her hand on the huge volume.

Words are spirit – her father’s admonition.

Mr. Hawthorne was not so ungentlemanly as to continue to correct her.  There is no complacency in the plays, but Delia had found something like it in her certainty.  If he thought her peculiar, he was a man for whom peculiarity was a rare value.  He told her that his years in Liverpool had shown him all manner of strange things, but that he would try to be of assistance.

Delia told him that she needed to travel to Stratford-upon-Avon, that she would find evidence beneath the gravestone.  She said she’d found clues in Bacon’s Letters and wanted to leave for Stratford as soon as she was well.

“Forgive me, my skepticism,” he apologized.   “I mistrust all sudden enthusiasms.”

“There is nothing sudden in this,” Delia said.  “It is the cumulative philosophy of years of study.”

“Sudden for me, I meant.”  He smiled, determined and polite.  “We find thoughts in all great writers, and even small ones, that strike their roots far beneath the surface, and twine themselves with the roots of other writers thoughts.  When we pull up one, we stir the whole, and yet these writers had no conscious society with one another…”

“I know especially how the mind of an age speaks in many,” she told him.  “And there is far more in this than merely that.”

She was becoming impatient, but Mr. Hawthorne’s mildness encouraged her further.

“You will read this manuscript with greater satisfaction and interest if you don’t bolster up your mind beforehand with any such false view as that.  I mean with the idea that it is not true.  It is true,” she said.

He adjusted his neckerchief, but said nothing.

“If the Inquisition were in session now on the question I could not give them a hair’s breadth of concession!”

“I hardly think …” he began, but she cut him off.

“Lord Bacon and these great men were a republic of wits,” she countered.   “They knew and collaborated.  Their goal was political.  In that sense they are, to we Americans, our truest fathers.  Lord Bacon hoped that all rulers would change places with those they governed, and thus become enlightened.  He speaks to us in our freer age and we must follow his lesson.  Even if it means welcoming the rude surgery of civil war … “

Silence fell between them.  Delia suddenly spent, unable to sit up straight, unused to company and the effort required to convince.   She had lost the habit of conversing with real people and insisted too much and without consideration for Mr. Hawthorne’s gentle courtesy.

He changed the subject.  He spoke of Sophia’s illness, of his children, of the strains of working at his consulate tasks, which left him no time or energy for literature.  People claiming to be citizens appeared daily to solicit funds either to return to America, or because they recognized in him a generous nature.  He admitted to having been shrewdly cheated more than once.

“I see I tire you with these personal details.”

“No, no.”

“I came to assist you, and mean to.”

He gave her ten pounds.   She took it with the unuttered acknowledgement that her earnestness had not produced in him even a temporary faith.  He promised to work on her behalf to secure publication and knew English publishers likely to see of the merit of her philosophy.  Perhaps, she thought, she had charmed him, when it was his faith she really wanted.  He promised to consider writing the preface to her finished work, ensuring its serious consideration, and linking the name of Bacon with his own.

Perhaps Mr. Hawthorne saw her as a genuine scholar in a world of counterfeit.  Had seclusion, single-mindedness and dedication, revealed to her something hidden from those who, like him, must serve the material purposes of the world?  She could have told him that a prophetess must remove herself from ordinary life.

The effort to impress had left her hollow.   She had played her part with enough conviction to leave her blank.  The onset of a neuralgic attack loomed.  Minutes after Mr. Hawthorne left, Delia fled to bed, still wearing her coal black dress, boots buttoned to the ankle.

— Sheridan Hay


Sheridan Hay holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her first novel, The Secret of Lost Things (Doubleday/Anchor), was a Booksense Pick, A Barnes and Noble Discover selection, short listed for the Border’s Original Voices Fiction Prize, and nominated for the International Impac Award. A San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and a New York Times Editor’s Choice, foreign rights have been sold in fourteen countries.







Jul 122012

Herewith an excerpt from Edouard Levé‘s Autoportrait, translated by Lorin Stein and published by Dalkey Archive Press.  On first encounter you might feel reluctant toward Levé’s prose since the sentences tend not to work together as in a standard narrative. The rhythm of his “I like,” “I have,” “I would,” I + verb will pull you along, though.  Also I’ve tried to choose a section with some of the more humorous (note: darkly) lines.

A few months ago, when The Paris Review ran a pre-publication excerpt of Autoportrait, I experimented with writing in its style because it looked too easy, too random.  It proved more difficult than expected.  A page or two was all I could muster.  I felt too exposed, too vulnerable. Also, to my surprise, the truthfulness of what I’d written started to feel rather shaky.  It’s extraordinary that Levé extents his self-revealing for 117 pages, and at times it’s painful. He lays out so much about himself that he seems to disappear in the bluster of his statements, a kind of self-erasure through self-exploratory prose perhaps meant to showcase his life. As he writes: “If I look in the mirror for long enough, a moment comes when my face stops meaning anything.”

Author photo via The Balloon Journey.

— Jason DeYoung

I reuse grocery bags as trash bags. I separate my recycling, more or less. Drinking puts me to sleep. In Hong Kong I knew someone who went out three nights a week, no more, no less. I believe that democracy is spreading in the world. The modern man I sing. I feel better lying down than standing up and better standing than seated. I admire the person who thought up the title The Last House on the Left. A friend told me about the “Red Man of the Tuileries,” I don’t remember what he did but the name still gives me shivers. The pediatrician my mother took me to humiliated generations of children, including me, with this riddle: “If Vincent leaves a donkey in one meadow and goes into another meadow, how many donkeys are there?” all said in a measured voice, and then he’d say, “There’s only one donkey—you” to any child, that is, every child, who didn’t answer “One.” I want to write sentences that begin “Ultimately.” I can understand “It’s the end,” “It’s the beginning of the end,” “It’s the beginning of the end of the beginning,” but once we get to “It’s the beginning of the end of the beginning of the end of the beginning,” all I hear is a bunch of words. I have sometimes annoyed an interlocutor by systematically repeating the last word he said. I never get tired of saying La fifille à son pépère (grandfather’s darling). One of my friends earns the admiration of some and the indifference of others by knowing the name and number of every département in France. My cousin Véronique is amazing. I sometimes think of the witty thing to say an hour later. At the table, I excused myself for splashing food on the spotless shirt of a friend by telling him: “You got in the way of my juice.” I take no pleasure in others’ misfortunes. I do not bow down before a metal idol. I am not horrified by my heritage. I do not till the earth. I do not expect to discover new marvels in classical music, but I’m sure of taking pleasure until I die in the ones I already know. I do not know whether one can improve on the music of Bach, but one can certainly improve on the music of several others who shall remain nameless. I admit to being wrong. I do not fight. I have never punched anyone. I have noticed that, on the keypads of Parisian front doors, the 1 wears out the fastest. I have sometimes turned my interlocutors against me by an excess of argumentation. I do not listen to jazz, I listen to Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday. I sometimes feel like an impostor without knowing why, as if a shadow falls over me and I can’t make it go away. If I travel with someone, I see half as much of the country as if I traveled by myself. One of my friends likes to travel in certain Middle Eastern countries where there is nothing to see but airports, deserts, and roads. I have never regretted traveling by myself, but I have sometimes regretted traveling with someone else. I read the Bible out of order. I do not read Faulkner, because of the translation. I made a series of pictures based on things that came out of my body or grew on it: whiskers, hair, nails, semen, urine, shit, saliva, mucus, tears, sweat, pus, blood. TV interests me more without the sound. Among friends I can laugh hard at certain unfunny TV programs that depress me when I’m alone. I never quite hear what people say who bore me. To me a simple “No” is pleasantly brief and upsettingly harsh. The noise level when it’s turned up too high in a restaurant ruins my meal. If I had to emigrate I would choose Italy or America, but I don’t. When I’m in a foreign country, I dream of having a house in Provence, a project I forget when I get back. I rarely regret a decision and always regret not having made one. I think back on the pain of affairs that never took place. The highway bores me, there’s no life on the side of the road. On the highway the view is too far away for my imagination to bring it to life. I do not see what I lack. I have less desire to change things than to change my perception of them. I take pictures because I have no real desire to change things. I have no desire to change things because I am the youngest in my family. I like meeting new people when I travel: these brief and inconsequential encounters have the thrill of beginnings and the sadness of separations. I wanted to write a book entitled In the Car, made up of remarks recorded while driving. To take pictures at random goes against my nature, but since I like doing things that go against my nature, I have had to make up excuses to take pictures at random, for example, to spend three months in the United States traveling only to cities that share a name with a city in another country: Berlin, Florence, Oxford, Canton, Jericho, Stockholm, Rio, Delhi, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Mexico, Syracuse, Lima, Versailles, Calcutta, Baghdad. When I decide to take a picture of someone I see in the street, I have ten seconds to notice the person, decide to take the picture, and go ask, if I wait it’s too late. I wear glasses. In my mouth, time moves slowly for candy. I have deeper to dig in myself. I see art where others see things. Between the solitude of the womb and the solitude of the tomb I will have hung out with lots of people. While driving a car past some meadows these words came to me: a tractor chicken and an elephant tent. I wish treatises were article- not booklength. In the United States I came across a village called Seneca Falls, which I mistranslated Les Chutes de Seneque (Seneca’s Falls). I have seen an ad for a vegetarian vehicle. I would like to see movies accompanied by inappropriate music, a comedy with goth rock, a children’s movie with music from a funeral, a romance with a brass band, a political film with a musical-comedy sound track, a war movie with acid rock, porn with a choir. I make fewer and fewer excuses. After I lick an envelope I spit. I don’t want to die suddenly but to see death slowly coming. I do not think I will end up in hell. It takes five minutes for my nose to forget a smell, even a very bad one, this doesn’t go for what I perceive with my other senses. I have weapons in my brain. I have read this sentence by Kerouac: “The war must have been getting in my bones.” Although I have always translated Deer Hunter as Chasseur de cerf, I still hear the echo of the mistranslation cher chasseur (dear hunter). I remember what people tell me better than what I said. I expect to die at the age of eighty-five. To drive at night through rolling hills by moonlight in summertime can make me shudder with pleasure. I look more closely at old photographs than contemporary ones, they are smaller, and their details are more precise. If not for religion and sex, I could live like a monk. My last and first names mean nothing to me. If I look in the mirror for long enough, a moment comes when my face stops meaning anything. I can stand around in several dozen different ways. I have carried women in my arms, I have not been carried by them. I have not hugged a male friend tight. I have not walked hand in hand with a male friend. I have not worn a friend’s clothing. I have not seen the dead body of a friend. I have seen the dead bodies of my grandmother and my uncle. I have not kissed a boy. I used to have sex with women my own age, but as I got older they got younger. I do not buy used shoes. I had an idea for an Amish punk band. Only once was I the first occupant of an apartment. I got into a motorcycle accident that could have cost me my life, but I don’t have any bad memories of it. The present interests me more than the past, and less than the future. I have nothing to confess. I have trouble believing that France will go to war in my lifetime. I like to say thank you. I cannot perceive the delay in mirrors. I don’t like narrative movies any more than I like the novel. “I do not like the novel” doesn’t mean I do not like literature, “I don’t like narrative movies” doesn’t mean I don’t like movies. Art that unfolds over time gives me less pleasure than art that stops it. The second time I walk the same route, I pay less attention to the view and walk faster. I let the phone ring until the answering machine screens the call. I spend two hours talking to one friend, but it only takes five minutes to end my conversation with another. When I’m on the phone, I don’t make any effort with my face. If I put off a phone call where something is at stake, the wait becomes more difficult than the call. I am impatient when waiting for a phone call but not when I have to make one. I have more good memories than bad ones. When I’m sure I like an article of clothing I buy a few of the same one. I do not wish to shine.

— Edouard Levé, translated by Lorin Stein



Jul 112012

The come-and-go as you please nature of the text, which allows for any entry point, equalizes the information.  There is a sense that it’s all happening at once, and that knowing when Levé hears the English word “god” he thinks of the French word for dildo (godemiché) is as important as his druthers to “paint chewing gum up close than Versailles from far away.” — Jason DeYoung

Edouard Levé
Translated by Lorin Stein
Dalkey Archive, 2012
117 pages, $12.95

Edouard Levé took his own life ten days after delivering his final novel Suicide to his publisher. Assembled pointillisticly, Suicide is without much narrative, but Levé holds your attention through insights regarding the act of suicide and his patient rendering of a man who takes his own life at the beginning of the book.  There is a lot of guesswork on the part of the author in Suicide, but Levé manages to give a poignant depiction of this young man, his personality, eccentricities, and motivations.  Autoportrait and Suicide resemble each other in style, except the former is about Levé himself, and Autoportrait is without the latter’s lucidity, which is in keeping with Levé’s philosophy, as he writes: “Only the living seem incoherent. Death closes the series of events that constitutes their lives. So we resign ourselves to finding a meaning for them.”  When it was written, Autoportrait was about a living person.

Before Suicide, Levé was better known as a conceptual photographer than a writer.  His photographs were often composed scenes that were not as transparent as their titles would suggest, as in his collection Pornography in which models, fully clothed, contort into sexual positions, or his collection Rugby, a series of photographs of men in business attire playing the titular sport. In both, the photos represent an action but are not the real thing.  As Jan Steyn points out in the Afterward to Suicide: “We cannot see such images and naively believe in the objective realism to which photography all too easily lays claim: we no longer take such photos to show the truth.”

Levé background also includes a degree from the ESSEC, a prestigious Parisian business school, and for several years he painted before giving it up during a trip to India. His writing owes a self-acknowledged debt George Perec, a founding member of the Oulipo, short for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle—”workshop of potential literature”—and Levé authored two other books: Oeuvres (2002), an imaginary list of more than 500 books by the author, and Journal (2004), a collection of faux journalism.

As a book, Autoportrait is a radical act of communication, eschewing the complexity of organized thought for the chaos of raw fact.  Written exclusively in declarative sentences, Autoportrait gives an unflinching self-portrait of its author.  In one unadorned assertion after another, Levé creates something personal and individualistic that hints at the multitudes within, while abstaining from narrative (and its attendant techniques): “On the train, facing backward, I don’t see things coming, only going. I am not saving for my retirement. I consider the best part of the sock to be the hole.” Levé own description of “picking marbles out of a bag” aptly describes the apparent order of sentences as they appear over the 117-page, single-paragraph Autoportrait.

If on first encounter Autoportrait seems to be about self-knowledge, it’s not an Apollonian know yourself, find strength within type, but a ridged self-unpacking, brusque and inexplicable.  Page-after-page Levé makes stochastic announcement regarding his life—we find out that he is “happy to be happy,” he likes John Coltrane, and could never “conceive of being altruistic.” Yet, as readers, we are left wondering if these facts get close to self-knowledge, or a complete self-knowledge.  There is no reading into these facts by the author, interpretation being something that bubbles up from the bowels of opinion, which can be rendered untrue. Though precisely written and hewed rigorously to its form, in the end Levé is still oblique, only a phantom of a person has emerged. Levé knows it; he knows his project is a failure of completeness, and throughout the book he drops hints:

“Everything I write is true, but so what?”

“I write fragments.”

“I know how much I’m seen, but not how much I’m understood.”

“Often I think I know nothing about myself.”

“To describe my life precisely would take longer than to live it.”

Not that he trusts writing anyway: “When I read the descriptions in a guidebook, I compare them to the reality, I’m often disappointed since they are fulsome, otherwise they wouldn’t be there.”

So if the author thinks writing is flawed, why read the book? One reason is for the interests in the formal experiment of its style. Levé has dropped the illusion of narrative to write a frenzy of sentences utterly transparent, crystal-rim-tap clear, yet sentences that do not seem to add up to anything other than lists—likes, dislikes, experiences, wishes, complaints, thoughts, et cetera.  A type of graffiti: I am here, such-and-such date, expletive! Existence proven. But without the typical author manipulation afoot, the experience of reading Autoportrait is profound, the way gazing upon a sobbing nude man walking into church during Sunday service might be profound. Asking what does it mean cannot be helped.  And the lack of connecting tissues creates its own tension—each sentences something wholly new. What bit of sexual exploit will he confess next, what tidbits of triviality will he express, who else bores him, what other banality will he mention—“My fingernails grow for no reason.”  Yes, a genial, yet mordant, whimsy lurks in these sentences.

By taking the book’s title and Levé’s photography into consideration, there is another way to read this book. The come-and-go as you please nature of the text, which allows for any entry point, equalizes the information.  There is a sense that it’s all happening at once, and that knowing when Levé hears the English word “god” he thinks of the French word for dildo (godemiché) is as important as his druthers to “paint chewing gum up close than Versailles from far away.”  Reading it this way makes me wonder if his intention wasn’t a book that gave a complete picture—how could it really?—but that each sentence be a portrait unto itself, as a camera on “auto” would rapidly shoot pictures.  Each sentence a glimpse of a Levé in fixed space and time, a portrait album in sentence form.  Thus the visual appearance of a single paragraph book acts as a kind of compression device to create intriguing relationships. But the relationships are so many or so diffuse that Autoportrait becomes a book without a single solution, and in some ways there’s something to relish in its resistance to interpretation, a kind of aesthetic of incomprehensibly in which Levé escapes a tyranny of meaning or acknowledges the absences thereof. As in his photography, these sentences represent their author, but are not the real thing.

As Levé dabs off facts we see there are common ruminations and patterns, however, to his life that revel depth and elicit emotion. And as a wandering mind often does, the book at times comes together for what could be perceived as sustained thought, as in this passage about Levé’s brother:

My brother had two childhood friends, they were all about five year old, and he met them again when he was forty-five in Nice, where all three of them now live. I have no friends from my childhood.  When I was a child, then a teenager, I had one best friend for two or three years, then another, and so on, I never kept a best friend more than four years, I was almost twenty before I had the friends who lasted longer, and almost thirty before I met the friends I have now. I have been more faithful in friendship than in love, which isn’t to say that I cheated on the women I was with, but that my relations with them lasted a shorter time than relations with my friends.  In every friend I am looking for a brother. I have not found a friend in my brother, but I have not, alas, made the effort to look. My brother was too old for us to be friends.  My brother and I are like night and day, and I may be the night. I have often thought that education had little influence over individuals, since my brother and I had the same education and have pursued divergent paths.  I like my brother, this is probably reciprocal, I write “probably” because of my brother we have never discussed it. It moves me to see photos of my brother when he was little, I see that we have the same complexion, the same eyes, the same hair, but I know these similar envelopes contain minds that have never come into contact.  At night it reassures me to hear a few quiet footfalls on the floor of the apartment above.

This is perhaps my favorite part of the book, since in his comparison with his brother, we glimpse a Levé that isn’t somehow held fast in cool prose, we get something like emotion when he writes, “in every friend I am looking for a brother,” with a second meaning of brother emerging. Levé expresses a desire for reconnection and wholeness. He is “moved” to see pictures of his brother. He wants this relationship.  And, for me, that final sentence is the kicker.  Though it could be seen as a return to the normal course of the book—one unconnected sentence after another—there’s something haunting there with the footfall, the acknowledge, “reassuring” presence of the another.  It heightens the pathos felt in his desire for finding the “aleph of the other” (Suicide).  Yet Levé will not let his desire for oneness overpower his art.  Autoportrait is fragmentary after all. It’s not a machine for producing a so-called reality.  Wholeness, at this point, would be fantasy, and the very next sentence after this passages reads: “I do not eat candy, it makes me sick.”

Dodie Bellamy writes in her Barf Manifesto: “Sophistication is conformist, deadening. Let’s get rid of it.”  And that’s what Levé has done here, and that’s what makes Autoportrait extraordinary. Levé has opened himself up to kind of psychological vivisection to show us the mess of his living innards.  Yes, some of Levé is exotic—he is an individual after all—but there’s plenty of loneliness and small-heartedness, biases and loves to commiserate with, too. Reading Autoportrait with the same criteria as reading a standard novel built out of plot, character, and setting won’t do.  It has to be approached as innovative art: its subject is one person and its form is just as unique.

— Jason DeYoung


Jason DeYoung, a regular contributor to these pages, lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has recently appeared in Corium, The Los Angeles Review, The Fiddleback, New Orleans Review, and Numéro Cinq.

Jul 092012

Herewith a rare and exceptional treat for Numéro Cinq readers, two writers — Billie Livingston and Susie Moloney — in conversation; an interview ostensibly, but at a certain point the convention breaks down and they just talk. Both are prize winners, both are too young to be at the peak of their careers but both on the hyper-ascendant. They are from opposite sides of the literary tracks, so to speak, one literary, the other a superb horror novelist, but they respect and like each other. Ebullient, witty, brash and challenging — they take us on a breakneck tour of the relationship between genre and literary faction, on the strange business of writing, and the love of art.

I first met Billie Livingston last year when I was on the jury for the Danuta Gleed Literary Prize. Billie won. And this is what the jury said about her story collection Greedy Little Eyes: “In this collection the writer’s eyes are wide open, taking in the world and then reflecting it in all its strangeness and beauty. She pushes edges, teeters on brinks, creating the exhilaration that comes only with taking risks. Her characters are real people in a real world who achieve break-out velocity and recreate themselves by signal acts of courage and self-definition. Frequently, her plots hinge on a demand for justice in a world clouded with calculation and evasion, resulting in a collection as strong in content as it is in style.” Billie is also a novelist and poet — her third novel One Good Hustle is coming out later this month.

Susie Moloney is the hugely popular author of four best-selling horror novels including The Thirteen: A Novel just out in March, described in the Toronto Globe and Mail as “a gonzo, mirror-universe, occult version of The Stepford Wives, with a dash of Stephen King thrown in.” The reviewer goes on to say the book is “a compellingly uncanny narrative, binding the tropes of small town paranoia and cliquishness with the chokehold of family obligations and religious fervour, and the very real claustrophobia of poverty and desperation” which sounds so uncomfortably close to my own life that I am afraid to pick up a copy (though I will).

It’s a huge pleasure to give these two authors a place to talk on NC.



BILLIE: As writers you and I are slotted into different categories in the publishing world. You’re considered a “genre” writer (horror) and I’m a “literary” writer (whatever that means).  We don’t appear in the same festival events, we’re not asked to sit on the same panels—It’s as if we’re different animals at the zoo and we might rip one another’s fur off if we come in close contact.  Meanwhile readers, for the most part, don’t use those terms and don’t give a damn what they mean.  The idea is that literary works are complex and multi-layered (dull and plotless) whereas genre work is about romance and scary capers (shiny and trivial). John Updike said the term “literary fiction” was created to torment people like him who just set out to write books. What do you think? Does this kind of grouping effect you? Please you?  Limit you?

SUSIE: You know, I answered this about three times, and deleted all three responses, because what it comes to is this: I love labels when I’m buying a book, and I hate them when I’m writing one.

There’s something juvenile about ghettoizing storytelling. It’s separation, stereotyping: blondes are dumb, jocks are bigots. As Stephen King said when he was accepting his National Book Award—that’s right, a horror writer won the NBA in 2003—he said, “When readers are deeply entranced by a story, they forget the storyteller completely. The tale is all they care about.” That’s some ninja chastising there. You can hardly tell he was schooling those folks. But he was. In fact, I think his whole speech is somewhat of a canon for how we’d like to be seen, us genre writers.

I think the greater issue with genre v literary, is, who gets to decide if something is literary or not? It should be the reader, and I would bet you’re right, the reader doesn’t give a shit. The Wendigo is one of those horror concepts that comes up in literary fiction. Is that because it’s mythological? So, if I write about the Wendigo, is it still literature if I call it a dead cannibal? What if my Wendigo is succubus?

Ray Bradbury, Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen King—they all wrote horror fiction designed at source to make you pull the covers up over your head. They’re also damn good writers. The kinds of writers you “take in school,” as my grandmother used to say. She had great respect for anything you, “take in school.”

I’m curious to hear the other side of this. Do you guys, you smarty pantses, ever peer over the fence at us genre writers and moan while we walk our comically large cheques to the bank? Or is it just us cupping our hands around our eyes and staring through the candy story window at your black-tie galas where you pick up shiny statues (that we immediately believe will make an awesome murder weapon in our next tome)?

BILLIE:  Do we moan?  That’s about all we do.  And rend our garments.  The only people who moan more than the literary fiction crowd are the poets.  We look at your big barrels of genre money and shriek, “Nobody understands me!  Maybe they’ll recognize my artistic genius when I’m dead.”  Then we wonder how hard it would be to fake our own demise.

SUSIE: Ha ha. You poets! Always with the funnies. In any case, I’m with King on this one. The reader doesn’t care. Not when the book is in her hands.

As for literary novels being dull and plotless, you’re being too hard on your own people, and I thank you for that.

The real thing is here, how come you get all the accolades when you’re mining your own backstory, and I get fewer even though I have to go through all the extra work of making it all up? From scratch. What about that? Is it easier to mine your own stories, or is it easier to just go to the therapist and make the rest up?

BILLIE: So, let me get this straight, the way you figure it, I just cut and paste from my diary and call it fiction, whereas you, clever girl, pull from the thin air of your magical mind?

SUSIE: Yes. That’s exactly what I think.

BILLIE: Ha! You’re just yanking my chain.  Any writer who claims that there is no autobiographical component to his or her work is either a liar or an emotional chicken. I think it’s true of fiction and non-fiction writers.  I think it’s true of biographers!  I was struck with that when researching Cease to Blush.  If you read two or three biographies about the same historical figure, each will be very different. People can’t help but see through the lens of their own lives and, because of it, even biographies begin to suggest more about the biographer than their subjects.

SUSIE: Okay, I’ll cop to some autobiographical elements to my work, probably most obviously in The Dwelling. But I leave it to the reader to discover which of the stories is the most autobiographical. Did I have sex with a ghost? Am I dead and living in the walls of a house? Did my computer try to make me kill myself? Or was it all autobiographical? Hmmm.

That first person voice you use gets me every time. It’s so intimate. You can’t read “I” statements and not get personally involved with the character.

Do you think of them as inspired by real life, ripped from your own personal headlines, so to say, not a memoir, but memoir-ish? The memoir has been huge for a few years. If you had a drinking problem or had killed a man in Reno just to watch him die, you would kill with a memoir.

BILLIE: The most autobiographical book I’ve written was, as one would expect, my first. My family was rather disconcerted to recognize bits that mirrored our lives juxtaposed with scenes that bore no resemblance to anything in memory. But it’s a novel not a memoir, and as they say, sticking to “truth” can limit the larger truth that fiction reveals.  Which is why it’s so dreamy and lovely to go into that trance-like state when writing… it’s as though the ghost of Christmas past is being the docent of my own weird story gallery.  The thing too is, you come to a point when you realize that what doesn’t kill you makes you stranger.  So why not mine the strangeness and make art out of it, baby.  If I could paint worth a damn, you better believe I wouldn’t be doing landscapes.

I’m fascinated with the way you use the close third person.  Particularly impressive in The Dwelling, as there were different stories within the story, so the voice changed as their particular worlds unfolded.  Each character’s mind is woven through the voice and yet it still allows for a kind of omniscient overview.  I have a hard time writing in the third person. It’s as though I can only feel characters when I can hear them in my head and when I do they always say, “I.”

SUSIE: There also seems to have been a real uptick in novels with a first person narrative. Have you noticed a correlation between memoir, first person narrative and the rise of social media? Do we just want to listen to stories that are about “I”?

BILLIE: Haven’t noticed an uptick in first person narratives— I see more third-person!  (Perhaps we each notice “the other.”) There has definitely been an obsession with memoirs though.  Seems a lot of people have a craving to catch a glimpse of “this all happened.”  And publishers, in a cynical ploy to extract cash from the rubberneckers, have bought lot of vaguely autobiographical novels and repackaged them as memoirs.

SUSIE: That’s probably some of the beauty of writing genre fiction. The truths that the author believes and would like to promote or at least mention in passing are buried under piles of corpses, or bricked up in the walls and allowed to scream. We get to use really broad metaphors, because when there’s a monster, for crying out loud, it’s probably representing something. I mean, it’s a monster. That’s often, however, when the horror fiction genre writer (full title) is underestimated. At first blush, that monster might well be the crushing helplessness of man versus the industrial complex … but it might also be something more human and heartbreaking and universal. Maybe I’m overreaching. This last couple of years I’ve noticed another uptick: the number of dead children in Susie Moloney stories. Maybe you’ve all noticed. I know that it’s because my youngest is mostly grown up now and it’s a loss. I was a single mom for most of his life, and we were pretty tight. It’s been like an amputation (look for the broader “amputation” metaphor in future stories). Anyway, that’s a universal, heartbreaking truth that all mothers understand, and it’s been subtly marked in most of my work. Or so I like to think.

BILLIE: Your recurring themes are hanging out! Ha! I see dead children…. and children in peril, motherhood and the fear of maternal failure, suburbia, isolation and the horror of “you made your bed, now lie in it.”  I think all of those things come to the fore in your most recent novel, The Thirteen.  On its surface it probably has the breeziest feel of your books — I mean it’s fun and playful in its satire of suburbia — but, it’s been compared to The Stepford Wives which has become an iconic shorthand for women who are so desperate to fit in that they become more like obedient pets.  The women in The Thirteen have a more hungry and defiant desperation to be successful wives and mothers.  When you wrote it, did you set out with that theme in mind or did you just tell the story and let the themes fall where they may?

SUSIE: Well, I’ve been a reluctant suburbanite. I was raised in the suburbs mostly, and so when I went back to Manitoba to lick my wounds, I think I subconsciously retreated to a childhood I wanted to remember (never happened) to raise my youngest son. It’s just easier in the ‘burbs. The schools, parks and community centres are all there, everyone is more or less the same. There’s no challenge, really, to living there. Or so that was the great dream when I bought my house.

There is challenge there, turns out. I didn’t really fit in. I had a potty mouth. I kept my wine in a go-cup. I homeschooled for the first two years. I didn’t have a job—not one you could see me coming home from. The thing that saved me from utter insanity, were the women. It might have been some true divine intervention there, but I happened to have great neighbours, each of them just a little different in their way. The woman across the street from me was bat-shit crazy, I swear to god. Up a little from her was a lady who had a monkey. A gay couple lived one house over. My closest neighbour became my best friend. But the story of The Thirteen started out as a short piece about the crazy woman across the street. I started to wonder what would happen if a witch went crazy and was no longer of use to her dark god. It started off a lot of fun, but turned very serious in the end, kind of a “chickens coming home to roost” thing.

At the heart of that story—whether it shows or not—is the feeling of being an inadequate parent. Wanting your child’s life to be smooth and successful, and how little power we have to make that so. Every bad decision–that seemed like a good, well-thought out decision at the time—not working out, and it being All Your Fault. Such power we tiny little mothers have! To ruin whole lives! Oh my. The book started out as a wish-piece, to wave a magic wand, or compact with the Devil, to make our lives flawless whatever the cost.

Also I fucking love the suburbs. So much grass.

BILLIE: One thing I’ve noticed too is that religious faith comes up in your work, but it’s not as the boogieman, the way it often does in a lot of contemporary fiction.  There’s a general sense among those who consider themselves intellectuals that belief in any sort of deity is the hallmark of a moron. Religion definitely comes up in my own work, in part because, like it or not, it is something of a cornerstone of who we are and how we live.  I also tend to write about people who are broke and who are outsiders and the church is often the only community to step up to the plate with the down and out. As a kid on welfare, that was certainly my experience. It was the church-crowd who consistently offered help and who were happy to be a second family–A superstitious, loony family sometimes, but still, their doors were open and they gave a damn. Did you grow up with much in the way of religion?  I get the sense from your writing that you have a soft spot for it.

SUSIE: Oh I love religion. I was raised orthodox heathen and my first exposure to religion was through a Catholic friend. I went to church with her a few times. It all seemed so glamorous and fulfilling. Like you, I appreciated the fact that it was a community and you could be part of it. And there was wine. And the BODY of Christ. You know that old saw, “Home is the place where they have to take you in (sic)?”

BILLIE: Robert Frost!  He’s always good for an aphorism that sums it up nicely. Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.  Sounds like church to me.  Or at least what the church should be.

SUSIE: It seemed like that sort of thing to me. I wanted to have a place where they had to take me in, just because I was part of it.

When I was a teen mom, I was born again. I lived in Winnipeg Regional Housing at the time, and the born again-s seemed to sweep the whole block, like germ warfare. In retrospect, it was a pseudo-religion, a kind of pop-god era in my life where Jesus was your bud, your boyfriend, the guy who would carry you over the sand so no one knew you skipped work and went to the beach (only one set of footprints, eh?) The soundtrack was Amy Grant and Michael Smith and Petra. It was fun. Mike Warnicke and his “book of do’s,” not “book of don’ts.” I went to a bunch of churches, all my friends were hyping their churches. I was kind of a buffet gal. It was all great until I went so some church in some community centre basement on Edison Avenue and met the minister there. I was carrying my beautiful toddler, the centre of my life. My friend introduced me to the pastor and he looked at my kid and said, “Where is this baby’s father?” Turned out he wasn’t looking for an address. That was kind of the end of religion for me.

BILLIE: Wasn’t it Ghandi who said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.”? The born-again judgment was what ultimately drove me out of that church too. And the theology: very literal, not terribly nuanced. Of course, it’s the parade of those very things that I love when I read Flannery O’Conner’s writing.  She always seems able to get to the heart of the simultaneous impulse toward redemption and revenge.

I still do take a pleasure in church hopping though. Churches, synagogues, temples…I like going to different places of worship, and listening for the poetry that illuminates or challenges in a way that hadn’t occurred to me before.

SUSIE: I know what you mean. God and spirit and the wonders of the possibilities, all of that has hung around.

Telling that story makes me feel naked and 18 again. So, while I hate to belabour this point, but frankly, I love this point: I find that your voice is so real and so intimate that as a reader, I can’t help but feel naked and vulnerable while I’m in that world. Your voice melts into the page and ceases to be a separate voice. It’s my voice. Is that what all writing is supposed to do? All of it doesn’t, but yours does. And I have an example of this, two really, one funny.

I loved, just loved One Good Hustle, which is newly released and I think, my new favourite Billie Livingston novel. It’s about Sammie and her mother Marlene and a tough patch (your PG-13 elevator pitch). There’s a moment when Sammie pulls the drugstore hustle, very cool, very doable. That was the problem, it was so doable. I was reading that section and for the next few hours I just had this feeling that we were going to get caught. You know, me and Sammie. Because we ripped off that drugstore. But of course, “we” didn’t, Sammie did, but that coal of guilt in my belly was real. That’s my funny example, and a true story. Ha.

On a more upsetting note, the night Sammie goes to pick up her mother from that place, with the people—I’m being deliberately cryptic so not to deprive your readers of this, a very glorious/gruesome scene—she’s with a friend, and mortified. The friend claims to be less mortified. That scene was so raw, so human that while reading it, the instinct is to look away. While that never actually happened like that in my life, the discordant feelings of defense, protection, rage and humiliation are so perfectly executed that later when I was thinking about it, for a moment I thought it a part of a story from my own life. With complete acceptance—oh I remember this one time when I had to pick up my dad at …

Except, it didn’t happen to me. But it stabbed into me so thoroughly, the wound so clean, that I was independently humiliated for hours later. (Thanks). I think that is that first person voice, exactly. It’s so intimate and naked, that it must be my own. The power of first person—or maybe that shiv, as wielded by you—is so sharp, so fine, so accurate, that it just becomes the “I” statement that I, the reader, have been too terrified to speak out loud.

BILLIE: I have a compulsion to argue with compliments but I’ll stick a sock in it and say, thank you from the bottom of my heart.  I’m a bit relieved that the scenes you mentioned were made up – ie not ripped from my own personal headlines.  I probably shouldn’t say that. Is there any point to saying what is true? Discerning what “true” means is a bit of a rough hustle in itself.  Is a story “made up” if it comes from the closet where something similar is buried under the dust bunnies? John Irving has come up with story after story that involves Maine, wrestling, teachers, bears and a hirsute woman.  These are such a part of his mental furniture that regardless of how differently he treats them, we know by now that they are a significant part of his personal truth.

I can’t help thinking that labels like genre and literary (and their various sub-categories) mainly give comfort to critics and academics— who love to invent rules. Neither of us went to creative writing school and we are in the minority in that regard. Early on, I used to wonder if there might be some special information that I wasn’t privy to. Were you concerned about formal instruction when you set out to write your first novel? Did you give much thought to “voice” and “structure” or did you just wing it?

SUSIE: My first novel was a complete wing. I had just finished reading a novel that I particularly liked. I believe it was Margaret Lawrence’s A Bird in the House. Do you remember that book? A beautiful family dynamic study. When I was finished, I wanted to continue the feeling of being in the story—and so I wrote my own. No kidding.

The voice, style, structure, all of it was instinctive. I was writing like a reader. For better or worse, that’s still my process. What I read has changed somewhat, it’s probably broader than it was when I was a teenager, and my life experience of course is off the fucking charts—for better or worse—and so it’s getting harder to “wing it.” It certainly takes longer.

What about you? Is it instinct? Your work flows so effortlessly, as I mentioned earlier, it’s like listening to the voice in my head, I always know what you mean. It seems like you must sit down and put the end of the quill in your mouth, give a quick eye roll to acknowledge the muse and then … write a book. Is that it? Has it ever taken you literally years to sort something out to the point where it makes it into a story?

BILLIE:  I do a lot of meandering and babbling before I find anything close to a story. It’s almost like I weave a giant tarp and then I stare at it and wonder if it was really meant to be a dress. Or a skirt. In which case I have to go back and cut away everything that doesn’t look like a skirt.

I hadn’t met any writers before I started my first book. I kept writing in circles for close to four years until I came up with this idea of different POVs – one of them being the voice of authority, which would involve government documents. I did worry a bit. “Are you allowed to do this?  Is this just weird and silly?” I decided to apply to the Banff Centre for the Arts, in part to get over my fear of big institutions and authority and, in part, because I felt a craving to talk to someone who had written a book. When I was accepted into their five-week program I was so sure it was a clerical error that I started bawling at the airport, afraid they’d send me home when I arrived.

SUSIE: And in that vein, we’re both from that unschooled school of writing. So are we outsiders, practicing outsider art? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outsider_art

I personally love the label art brut to describe my work, and certainly, my circumstances.

BILLIE:  Art brut. So raw and yet sophisticated! Sure, I’ll go for that. Even if it is French for “finger painting sociopath.” I definitely felt like an outsider at Banff. Most of the other program participants had graduated from a creative writing program and they spoke in a kind of academic patois that I didn’t understand. They often talked about what you should and shouldn’t do in fiction and poetry. I probably used the phrase “Oh yeah? Tough,” a little too often in response.  Halfway through the program I had the great fortune of sitting down with Rachel Wyatt, the program director, and telling her about my idea for a novel, the (to me) crazy structure.  And she said in her sweet English goose of an accent: “Write it. There are no rules!”  She jumped up and plucked novels with unorthodox structures off her shelf to show me. I loved the hell out of Rachel.

SUSIE: I have never been to Banff as an artist. Back in the day I used to apply to things, but I would rarely be accepted, and I suspect it was because I don’t fit the “literary” form, although my partner—a playwright–says that it’s because you have to apply again and again, which appears to be a sort of dues paying thing.

BILLIE:  He’s right. You do have to apply a lot. I think part of it too is learning the type of phrasing and presentation these places like to see.  They are institutional bodies and yet they do act with a kind of human ego. If you squint, they’re almost like petulant lovers asking, “Why do you want to be with me?  What’s so great about me?”  So, if you want to court the Banff Centre or The MacDowell Colony, you tell them how much they mean to you and what you could learn from them.  It also helps to send work that is as polished as you can get it.  Otherwise, it’s as if you’ve come a-courtin’ with a stain on your shirt and spinach in your teeth.

SUSIE: I don’t have the energy to do that, frankly. Rejection sucks, ha ha. I’ve had my own Rachels over the years. People who read my stuff and commented and gave me guidance based on the quality of my writing rather than the subject matter. I also believe that your Rachel is right: there are no rules. You can be sure that if there were, I would be following them. My process is so bizarre and painful that I would love a few rules. Every year I think about applying to some creative writing course and starting from scratch, seeing if there is some kind of magic information that I’m missing. That’s the tragedy of being an outsider, I’m always thinking I’m out of the loop, even if I suspect that by now, I’m in it.   My agent wants me to have another book by end of summer. Some writers are writing TWO books a year. Two!

Seems most agents want their clients to do that, because that’s how books get on the bestsellers list. When you’re reading the list and you go, who the hell is that, chances are it’s somebody who had 27 books to their name. Are you feeling this kind of pressure to produce?

Billie: The “genre” and “literary” difference again.  In the “literary” universe, they don’t want us putting out more than one book every two years. With the lit stuff, publishers rely heavily on press and the potential for awards to drive sales rather than the kind of buyer’s momentum that comes with genre fiction. With literary fiction, there’s a terror that if you saturate the media with someone’s name and picture one year, no one will review another of her books the following year.

I assume writers who churn out semi-annual quickies must have a template in mind and they just rearrange the events and change the names. Which is fine if its easy and fun and all you want is to help people pass time in a crowded airplane. But if doing that leaves you feeling empty and unchallenged and untapped, then I say fuck it, go home to your soul. Otherwise you’ll start to feel like a five-dollar whore. Not that there’s anything wrong with whores — why some of my best friends….

SUSIE: I will include myself in that, if by “whore” you mean someone who will write for cash. For me to write that fast, I think I would give up a lot of what defines my prose, my (ahem) deep characterizations and what I feel are pretty rational motivations, regardless of whatever supernatural backdrop I’m using. I tried to write really fast, pump something out, but I found that I lost my way doing that. It gets to where I have no idea who these people are anymore, and I have no idea what story I wanted to tell.  Turns out, I just can’t pump them out. I’d love to be Stephanie Meyer, or even just the Susie Moloney people think I am, ha ha. I need my downtime, the time it takes to recharge that internal battery that allows us to fall into that beautiful trance state where all the good shit happens. I need to live in their world. Hell, I need to research their world! My current character is an insurance adjuster, and let me tell you, everything I know about insurance burned in the fire.

BILLIE: No kidding. I think one of the biggest surprises to me was that even when I was working with material that was second nature, as I was with Going Down Swinging, I still felt the need to research.  I went to AA meetings (though I’d been dragged to dozens as a kid), went to Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall meetings, (I’d been to many of those as a kid too) and met with social workers to get a sense of things from their prospective (I couldn’t count how many social workers I had growing up).  That kind of personal involvement feels like something I need to do in order to feel any kind of authenticity when I write.  I’ve been working on a story about a woman who turns to spiritualists in her grief and I’ve gone to half a dozen spiritualist services in order to listen to mediums and watch them in action.  Are you that way?  Do you have a need to immerse yourself in the world of your characters?  Your portrayal of Glenn the real estate agent was so believable that I assumed you must have flogged houses at some point in your work history – specific details, and dialog that rang true and helped flesh out the way she dealt with that world and her colleagues.

SUSIE: Spiritualists! I’m terribly impressed. I love a good medium. I went to see the Antiques Psychic in Calgary a few years ago to find my mother. She died when I was very young then I wrote about it and tried to sell it to The Walrus. They never got back to me. I bet they get back to you (and that right there is the difference between literary writers and genre writers).

By the time I was writing The Dwelling, I had bought my first house, sold it and then was buying another. When I was looking for what would be my second house, I really knew what I wanted and so I spent about 3,475,987 hours with my realtor, walking through other people’s houses. It was sad after awhile, all these people selling their houses. I tend to get very attached to places, and leaving them is always sad. After awhile I just saw all these people leaving their homes and offering them to me. I think that came out in The Dwelling.

BILLIE: It did.  One gets the sense that the Dwelling feels lonesome, dejected, and misunderstood, that it wants people to embrace it.  Of course, in this situation, the only way to be one-with-the-house is death. Just one character was capable of loving that house in the way it needed to be loved.

SUSIE: Few people ever mention the underlying sadness in Dwelling, but I think it’s there because of that. As for my realtor, she was terrific about showing me the game. I hung out with her at her agency, I went on open houses with her. I pretended to be her assistant on a couple of calls.

Right now I’m writing about demons, “literal” and personal. It’s a metaphor. (I hope.) And it takes place is a very large city, hmm, like New York. I’ve tried to get a sense of the undercity here, there’s a lot of steel and concrete, a lot of isolation and abandonment of whole areas, and there can be hopelessness, at least to the person passing through. I’m calling that research. And I’m claiming my Metrocard on my taxes next year.

BILLIE:  Demons— That could be really fascinating in a big city. One of the things I’ve learned, being married to a former seminarian, is the origin of some of these old words like Satan.  In Hebrew Ha-Satan translates as “The Accuser,” which, for a fiction writer, is much more interesting than a red guy with horns and a pitchfork.  More frightening is the idea of an insidious voice that says, “You’re a loser. You’re incapable of anything worthwhile so why don’t you just lie down and never get up again.”  Those thoughts, if left unchecked can be really monstrous –especially in the strange isolation of a megacity like New York.

It occurs to me that the house in the Dwelling uses the sadness of its inhabitants in order to coax them more deeply into itself.  The lonely accuser!  In The Thirteen, your most recent book, there is a more overtly Satanic figure – the Accuser is the dark beastly man who encourages the belief in these women that on their own, they aren’t good enough.

That’s what I love about theology and mythology— hours of amusement! They help me tap into the basics of who we are though. We’ve told these stories for thousands of years, trying to make sense of our fears and madness and we keep dreaming up new ways to tell them.

SUSIE: Exactly! It’s all demons. They might be less obviously demonic in the literary world, more shaded in grey. Your characters from Going Down Swinging, Cease to Blush, One Good Hustle, Marlene, Sammie, Eilleen, and Vivian are all running from, and running into demons. Alcohol, isolation, despair, abuse, neglect, all universal demons.

OMG. Billie. I’m you.

(Cue music by John Williams)

— Susie Moloney & Billie Livingston


Susie Moloney is the author of the award-winning humour column, Funny Girl. She is also the author of four novels, including the 2011 Globe and Mail Best Book, and winner of 2012 The Michael Van Rooy Memorial Award for Fiction, The Thirteen. She lives in Winnipeg and New York City.

Billie Livingston published her critically acclaimed first novel, Going Down Swinging, in 2000. Her book of poetry, The Chick at the Back of the Church, was a finalist for the Pat Lowther Award. Her novel, Cease to Blush was a Globe and Mail Best Book as was her story collection, Greedy Little Eyes, which went on to win the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and the CBC’s Bookie Prize. One Good Hustle will be published July 24, 2012



Jul 062012


It’s difficult to hang out with Carol (Margo Martindale), the awkward protagonist of Alexander Payne’s short film “14e Arrondissement.” An American postal carrier on vacation in Paris, she narrates what happened on her trip in a broken and poorly pronounced French delivered to an unseen French class in Denver, Colorado. Her desire to fully explore Paris, to really experince what she imagines is a French experience is troubled by her insistence on doing so with a fanny pack . . . we are, at least at first, meant to see this as a satire of American tourists abroad.

But what I like about Payne’s satire is how his characters are clowns (themselves the somestimes desperate object of ridicule) and also buffoons (who ridicule the audience). Of course, this double aspect may be only apparent in any discomfort we feel listening to Carol’s poorly pronounced travelogue, watching her awkward interactions with the locals, and seeing her trying to pop her ears in an elevator like a deep sea bass coming up from the depths (while she, in voice over, talks about death and dying). We don’t want to identify with Carol, particularly if we own fanny packs.

But Carol’s frank and clear narrative counterposes the poor French and her so-very-un-Parisian travels as she confesses a litany of loss, failed dreams, and a little bare-bone loneliness. She perhaps shares too much with this well of pathos, and yet there is a brutal honesty to the confession, partly a product of the directness of the form, a dramatic monologue that is her French class report, but also part of the clarity with which she sees her losses and reports them. There is no sense that she seeks sympathy. In case we’re confused, she explains that she is a happy person. Her story isn’t a plea for sympathy. It’s about her trip to Paris. And in the conclusion of the report and the short film, a conclusion we may feel teeter on the edge of all that disappointment and loss she has experienced, her real journey breaks through.

Carol has an absolute outsider’s view of the city and with her awkward perspective, her struggle to find her way through her expectations and hopes, she at first seems to be the quintessential tourist. In the opening shots of her in the hotel she reports that “the food wasn’t as good as [she] expected” over a shot of a half-eaten burger and a bottle of diet coke she has obviously ordered through room service in her hotel. But Carol is complex and confesses she did not sign up for a tour because she “wanted to live an adventure in a foreign place.” Paul Bowles in The Sheltering Sky argues that an “important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.” Carol refuses to be exclusively a tourist because she resists becoming a victim to her expectations, her homesickness for her dogs, or her jet lag. She does intrepidly seek what Paris has to offer, despite her desire for familiar narratives like when she imagines what it would be like to deliver mail there.

It was with great fear that I watched the last scenes of this short though, as it reminded in a terrible way of Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Mrs Brill,” a story I read in my youth and that, thereafter, filled me with foreboding whenever I imagined I was part of some great musical theatre moment of belonging on trains or in public parks. Who hasn’t wanted to feel what Mrs Brill feels when she imagines all the people in the park with their chorus of “We understand.” Carol is thankfully not Mrs Brill, though.  For Carol does  not desire to be accepted or to be drawn into the beloved arms of a throng of strangers. Carol’s ending is about her own experience, her own insistence on happiness and her own ability to appreciate the moment, on the bench, with the sandwich, in Paris.

“14e Arrondissement” is the last of the eighteen short films by well-known filmmakers that make up the anthology film Paris Je’ Taime. Richard Brody in his New Yorker review argues that “this mixed bag [Paris Je T’Aime]. . . is mandatory viewing for its one absolute masterpiece, by Alexander Payne.” Numero Cinq at the Movies has featured one of the other Paris Je T’Aime shorts, Tom Tykwer’s “Faubourg Saint-Denis.”

Payne apparently first resisted this story when he was challenged to make a short film set in the 14e Arrondisement. In an interview with David Stratton, he admits, “the last thing in the world I wanted to do was make a film about an American tourist, and I thought this would be an excuse to hire some really beautiful European actress, you know, and like, you know, have some fun that way.” But the place inspired him to move away from his own Francophile desire and this idea occurred to him. “After I spent time walking around that Ahondes mall and brainstorming as to what the idea could be, I just thought the idea I came up with was one that would give me an excuse, basically, to make a documentary about that. 
I wanted to show as much of it as possible, and the idea of a woman having a lamo tourist day walking around that strange Ahondes mall . . . somehow the idea of an American tourist and hiring Margo Martindale came to me.”
 And yet Carol allows Payne to represent the sublime she finds in the lamo.

Alexander Payne is an American writer and director known for such compelling and fascinating films as Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways, all four co-written with his frequent writing partner Jim Taylor They were nominated for an Oscar for their adaptation of Tom Peyrotta’s novel Election, won both the Golden Globe and Oscar for their adaptation of Sideways, and, Payne and two other writers recently won an Oscar for their adaptation of The Descendants. He is in pre-production to direct a film called Nebraska.

— R. W. Gray


Jul 062012


A widow, an Irish wanderer, a house built on a fault line and a mysterious light form the essential furniture of Gerard Beirne’s fine new story “Fault Lines.” Beirne is an Irish writer and you can hear the fierce rhetoric of the Irish in his opening cadences, the insistent lists and parallel constructions. The story is dark, almost noir in its atmosphere of eroticism and constant menace. Gerard Beirne and I don’t know each other except in our email interchange over this story, but we have tread common paths. Beirne was the Writer in Residence at the University of New Brunswick where I also have been Writer in Residence; he is the fiction editor at The Fiddlehead where I published some of earliest stories, yea, these many years ago; and he just published a poetry collection, Games of Chance: A Gambler’s Manual, with Oberon Press in Ottawa, a publisher with whom I have had a long association including a decade of editing the annual Best Canadian Stories. So he and I exist in almost parallel universes that have somehow flowed together on this page. Read the story.



You could look at it this way. You could say I was the one real beneficiary of his death. Not so much the car as the air conditioning, the house as the pool, the cellar as the wine collection, the lady as his wife.

As a lady she brought with her charm, sophistication, impeccable dress sense, a taste for good food. But as his wife she brought with her everything. His fortune, his lifestyle, his foul mouth, and his filthy mind.

* * *

“We’re all so much better off without him,” Maybelle told me on that first night we ended up in bed together. I was drinking his champagne, eating his caviar, lying passively beneath his gyrating wife. “He was cruel. He was fucking cruel. Cruel to all of his previous wives. Cruel to their children. Cruel to himself. And, worst of all, cruel to me. Irrespective of his ability to increase his fortune we are all so much better off without the bastard.”

She tipped over her champagne glass and poured his 1975 Dom Perignon along my chest, then bent over, extended her tongue, and licked that expensive liquid up in one long sweeping motion. And in that prolonged salivating moment, I knew just how wrong she was. How it was I, and not anyone of his close or distant family, who was the better off.

I fed her with his caviar, and she sucked it from my fingers. I appraised her firm body as it pincered me from above, grateful for the multigym he had purchased on its behalf. Then I thought of the swimming pool outside where earlier we had stripped and swam in the moonlike glow of the veranda spotlight. It was the first time we had seen each other’s bodies. The first time I had seen the naked flesh of a widow of barely forty-eight hours. The yellow glare of the spotlight jaundiced her pale skin. A light breeze blew in from the canyon, that large empty gulch that stretched ahead of us, carrying the smell of creosote bushes. The dry desert dust landed softly on the flagstones and tiles, on the surface of the shimmering water lit from below, on our warm flesh lit from we knew not where. We were exposed not just to each other but to the world if the world had cared to look.

The only lights to be seen were those dotted around the property for security, a row of house lights eighty miles to the east, and the stars they could barely be distinguished from. We scarcely glanced across at one another before diving on in. If I could help it, I was determined never to resurface. But resurface we did, together, in a hardened embrace.

Maybelle’s toes curled against the white sheets. She grasped my shoulder blades tightly with her fingers. Her long manicured fingernails scratched across my skin. “Cruelty is the worst sin of all, don’t you think?” she whispered close to my ear. Then she did something with her body that might not have been thought possible. “This was the only way I could hurt him in return.”

I almost screamed with the excruciating mix of pleasure and pain. The white curtains billowed out from the half-open shutters. A solitary star twinkled within my line of vision. Maybelle shuddered violently. Her strong legs gripped my thighs. Her fingers clawed at my torso. The star plummeted through the black sky. Died before my eyes.

Later as Maybelle showered, I stood by the window in his study and looked up, as he had looked up on so many occasions, at the constellations with his telescope. Orion. Pegasus. Ursa Major. What would happen if one of those stars died? I wondered. What sort of hunter would remain, what sort of winged horse, what sort of furrowing instrument? What would become then of the great design? How would we read the night?

I turned the lens towards the darkened desert, the canyon. That other great void. From deep within the canyon I witnessed an uncertain flash of light shooting upwards for which I had no explanation. To the east, the distant houselights flickered. Outside the glare of the security lights reflected against the lens. In the bathroom a flow of water spread in rivulets down Maybelle’s hard body.

How had I come this far?

* * *

Leaving Ireland had been easy. Leaving a small Donegal town. A small landholding I had no interest in. Leaving home.

I was happy to fill a hold all and empty it on the bed of a YMCA on the other side of the world. Happy to be paranoid on the streets of New York. Happy to work the graveyard shift washing dishes in an all-night cafe. Happy to tire of all that and board a Greyhound for Los Angeles.

Happy to get work with a landscape firm cutting lawns and trimming hedges in Santa Monica. Happy to meet Maybelle in one of his holiday homes by the side of his pool in a pastel orange bikini. Happy to peruse her shapely body. Happy to amicably converse. Happy to return to his secluded mansion in the Mojave Desert to replace his Mexican gardener who had flown the coop with immigration on his tail. Happy to inhabit his property. Happy to rise through his ranks. Happy to become, on his request, her personal assistant. Happy to follow her wherever she might go. Happy to assist in his early demise.

* * *

Maybelle pulled at my shoulder, woke me up. She sat up in bed distraught. The moon shed its light through the shuttered window. “Did you feel that?” Her face was pale. She crossed her hands over her chest like a corpse and held on to herself.

“What?” I looked for my watch on the table next to the bed. It was twelve minutes past three.

She turned angrily. “Didn’t you feel it?”

“Feel what?”

“The shaking.”


“It was an earthquake.” She pushed her head slightly forward as though listening intently. As if something might be heard that would confirm her suspicion.

“I didn’t feel a thing.” I tried to put my arm around her to comfort her, but she brushed it off. She turned suddenly to the empty champagne bottle on the table beside her. “Look.”

“What is it?”

“It’s vibrating. Can’t you see that?” She got up out of bed, and walked to the window. “We’re on the fault here. Right on the fault. Any moment the Big One could come, and when it does we’ll be swallowed up whole. Doesn’t that mean anything?”

“It was nothing,” I said. “A small tremor at the most.” We had talked about this before, but never at such intimate quarters, never so close to death.

“The bastard. The fucking bastard.” She looked out into the dark. In the breeze the light material of the curtain wrapped itself around her naked body. “That’s why he built it here. Goddamn him! Because it was so fucking cheap. His one great ambition in life — to buy up the fucking fault lines!”

“He’s dead now,” I said. “Everything can be undone.” I held my hand out to her. “Come back to bed.”

“Bed,” she repeated. “The great undoing.” She pulled the shutters closed as if they could somehow protect her. She came back over and got in beside me. The shutters rattled. Maybelle heard them and jumped.

“It’s only the wind.”

She glared at me. “Did we really screw?”

“Yes we did,” I assured her. “Like there was no tomorrow.”

* * *

Maybelle honoured his wishes and had him cremated. A simple ceremony had been arranged. Three of his previous wives showed up and six of his children. Maybelle was unclear how many wives there had been before her and was equally unsure about the number of children. She had none by him that much she knew. He had insisted on that. He told her he did not want her destroying her body like all of the others. That she was his last chance.

“His last chance for what?” I asked.

Maybelle shrugged. “I have no idea.”

She did not speak to any of them, but she assured me they would be as glad to see the back of him as she was. He had treated them all despicably.  “There are no bruises I can show you,” she told me one time sensing some slight doubt of mine. “Not on this body, but up here,” she said pointing to her head. “There’s where the damage lies.” At his cremation I looked at his array of wives and children and considered the cumulative internal injuries.

Afterwards I drove Maybelle and the urn with his ashes home. Keeping the urn with her, Maybelle went up to lie down. She did not reappear until evening. She ate a light dinner and asked me to send the staff away. She said she needed time alone. They would be paid of course. I asked if her dismissal of the staff included me also, and she told me not to be so foolish.

After dinner she asked me to drive her to the canyon. She held the urn in her lap as we drove. The orange dust swirled up from the wheels past the windows. The hot evening air wafted in shimmering waves distorting all that was visible. I looked out at the wavering yellow sneezeweeds and desert trumpet. A Jackrabbit leaped dangerously across the road in front of us clambering for shade. I put my hand on the urn, our fingers touching accidentally. Maybelle appeared not to notice, although she told me later that her heart for a moment ceased to function. The urn and Maybelle’s fingers were cool to the touch, his air-conditioning keeping all of our temperatures low. I felt the cold waves sweep over me, their calming influence, as our fingers parted.

Maybelle drummed on the lid of the urn impatiently. She glared through the front window. “You never talk about Ireland.”  She tightened her lips and brought me under her gaze.

“I’d rather forget it,” I told her. A viscous green and orange sunset soaked through the widening sky.

“Yes,” she agreed pulling the urn in against her stomach, “there are certain things best forgotten.” She glanced through the window at the vast expanse of gleaming desert. “I’m sorry. I’ll never ask you again.”

But Maybelle was right. In the three years I had known her I had never willingly spoken of Ireland. On a few occasions in the beginning she had alluded to it, but I skilfully deflected the conversation. I was living a new life now. Perhaps the first I had ever really lived. At its worst Ireland was a womb, a time pre-birth. At its very best it was a uterine contraction forcing me out into the life I now lived.

A shaft of light speared the road in front of us. I steered his car deliberately towards it. Permitted the light to dissect the metal car, and us within it, like a laser cutting tool. It shone brilliantly through the front windscreen, sparkling on the side of the urn, and leaving a line of gold along Maybelle’s toned body. She shielded her eyes with her hand, stared absently ahead.

“A meteor fell to earth here one time.” I had not heard mention of this before. “Some time in the sixties.”

“A lot of things from outer space were visible in the sixties,” I reminded her.

Maybelle ignored me. “The marks are still visible although the meteor itself was broken up and removed for scientific evaluation. The crater is somewhere around here.” She twisted the lid of the urn in a half-circle. I thought for a moment she was going to take it off to check if he was in there still. “He used to speak about it. He said he wished they had left it where it had fallen. He said he could have made a fucking fortune out of it.” She gritted her teeth as though constraining a further obscenity.

The car bounced on its suspension over a series of ruts in the surface of the road. A plump turkey buzzard swooped low and flew past the front of the car flapping its black wings viciously. We watched it circle the rotting trunk of a lone pinyon tree.

“Vulture.” Maybelle seemed in awe of it. She chewed on the side of her mouth. I looked at her fluffed out hair, her carefully applied eye-shadow, mascara, lipstick, and face powders, her slinky black mourning dress, her high heels. I surveyed the flat expanse of water-starved decay that surrounded us. Maybelle seemed more out of place here than I. More removed. I wondered about her past. She had never spoken openly about that either.

The road turned directly into the blazing sunset. The sky was engulfed in flames before us. We could have been driving into hell itself. A hundred yards or so up ahead a dirt track veered off to the left leading down to the canyon. I slowed down, pulled off the road, and followed along the rough surface until the earth opened up before us.

I got out and opened Maybelle’s door for her. She swung her long shapely legs out, and placed her high heels on the desert soil. I took her arm, and we walked slowly out towards the canyon. Her shoes scuffed on the loose stones. Maybelle twisted on her heel, her left leg buckling beneath her. I supported her weight and helped her to rebalance. Then we walked together right up to the edge. The yellow and red ochre walls of the canyon dropped sharply downwards for thousands of feet. Giant stalagmites of crumbling rock pierced upwards from the canyon sides and floor. Maybelle showed no fear.

“He’s been down there,” Maybelle said. “At least that’s what he told me.”

I steadied myself and looked down into the dry gulch. In all the time I had lived here I had never been this close to the canyon before. Obscure trails wound their way along narrow switchbacks making me feel dizzy.

“He’d stay overnight,” she said kicking some loose soil over the edge. I watched it fall lightly through the air. “He said it felt good to be sleeping in the bowels of the earth. Of course he might have been anywhere fucking any one of his lady fucking friends.”

Maybelle smiled and swiftly drew back her arm with the urn. She swung it through a wide arc and, letting out a grunt like a hammer or discus-thrower, she flung it as hard as she could out into the ravine. The urn soared through the air then dropped swiftly downwards. It struck a ridge a few hundred feet below and bounced outwards.

“MIND YOUR BIG FUCKING HEAD!” Maybelle’s shrill voice echoed through the walls of the canyon before returning to haunt her. She laughed hysterically. The urn fell deeper into the gulch crashing into one of the sharp peaks. A dull thud like broken bone sounded upwards. Pieces of ceramic splintered and showered. Heat hardened clay shattered against the earth it had been raised from. His ashes gusted outwards. A cloud puffed up past our faces and over our heads. A mixture of sobs and laughter bellowed from Maybelle’s open mouth and ricocheted back out of the throat of the canyon. Her make-up was smudged with tears, and her black dress was covered in red dust. She rocked on her high heels. I held onto her fast, afraid she would topple over the edge, and it was then we kissed for the first time, even as his ashes continued to swirl about us. We may have tasted them, him, on our pressed together lips, our pro-offered tongues. I was aroused and repulsed at once. Our mouths separated, and we clung together at the edge of the great divide.

We drove home in the dimming light. Maybelle’s fingers trailed across the back of my neck. The tyres churned over the dirt road. I observed the silhouette of the buzzard atop the decaying tree. I knew that Maybelle had been watching out for it too. I drove on quickly. Miles of road disappeared behind us. We approached the huge outcrop of his mansion. I pressed the remote control and the heavy metal gates opened at my fingertips. Maybelle watched them shut securely behind us in the rear-view mirror. Inside the house she reached immediately for the champagne and brought it out to the pool. She popped open the cork. A gush of champagne spurted into the air. The veranda spotlight switched on automatically. Maybelle filled our glasses. Frantic bubbles spewed over the edges. “To life,” she said raising her glass. We tipped their fragile edges together and drank thirstily washing the dust down. Then Maybelle turned her back to me and instructed me to unzip her dress.

I pulled the zip downwards along the ridge of her spine. I was still in her employment, still serving as her personal assistant. My assistance in his death could even have been construed as a part of my service. Likewise our trip to the canyon. But surely the kiss had changed all that. Unless the provision of comfort and release for a grieving wife was a part of my duty too. For yes, despite her relief at his demise and despite her contribution to it, Maybelle was grieving, grieving for something as yet unclear.

She flicked her shoes off her feet into the swimming pool and slipped her dress off her shoulders. I watched the shoes sink heel-down into the warm water. She cocked a glance at me, and I knew that I was expected to undress too. The low howl of a distant coyote lingered in the dense air. We teetered for a moment unclothed on the edge of the pool, then dived in.

* * *

Until the very end I had little contact with him. He was hardly ever there, always jetting around on one business concern or another. Whenever he was present, I was usually too busy with his wife’s life to intervene in his. We nodded from distances, exchanged casual remarks.

“You take care of her,” he told me early on establishing the nature of our relationship, “like you took care of my gardens. Trimming, pruning, watering. Keep her neat. Keep her beautiful. It’s what she wants. Pay attention to her whims, but be wary. There’s a certain wildness in any good garden that ought to be cultivated but contained.” He held my wrist firmly. “I don’t need to tell you this, you do your job and I’ll pay you well, you don’t, and I’ll kick your fucking ass all the way back to Ireland.”

I took no offence in these latter remarks. He was a business man adopting a sensible economic position. He was paying me good money after all. Incredible money. He had a right to certain expectations, and I was not an unwilling party to all of this. As for comparing his wife to a garden, it could easily be interpreted as the stuff of poetry, love even.

Whatever about the first kiss, or the first glimpse of Maybelle’s naked body, the instance of our coition, I knew, should have represented a moment of catharsis in my life. But just as my departure from Ireland was welcomed but left me none the wiser, this moment too escaped me. Nothing could ever be the same again, and yet beyond the champagne, the caviar, the sex, the selfish indulgences, the difference eluded me.

Our first night together became two, became three, became four. I slept in his bed, I ate his food and drank his drink. And, yes, I fucked his wife.

His phone was disconnected, his staff were excused from their duties, and his guard dogs prowled the perimeters. Maybelle was raucous, crude, and undisciplined. She was burdened with grief. But I, I was free to savour the delights. The champagne, the caviar, the grinding of our bodies. Although I barely knew him, he bequeathed me all of that.

The remaining dispersal of his fortune had still to be determined however. Maybelle was not ready for lawyers just yet she said. Nor the relatives. Not ready to face the swarm that would descend to pick over his bones. She felt certain she would come into the most of it, but the others would surely contest. Apart from his unnumbered previous wives there were any number of women out there who may have borne his children she said. Any number of individuals who would lay claim to his past. For now she didn’t want to have to deal with that. She wanted a few private moments of dignity.

We awoke hot and clammy at four in the morning  after a fiery night of cavorted passion. My limbs ached. Maybelle tossed and turned. Flipped her pillow over, beat it flat. She turned on her back and kicked the remaining sheet off of us.

“He hated nights like this,” she said. “They were somehow my fault.” A trickle of sweat ran down the side swell of her freckled breast. Maybelle started to cry.

“Maybelle.” I reached over and curled up against her. Our bodies meshed stickily. I stroked her tear-stained cheek. The heat between us was unbearable, and yet we clung on. Over her shoulder through the open window, the sky was filled with burning stars. The light breeze swished through the palm leaves. Maybelle convulsed in my arms, sobbing heavily. She began to curse him loudly. All manner of crudities slipped off her tender lips.

“Shh!” I brushed the hair off her forehead. I took her hand and helped her from the bed. I led her into his study and brought her to the telescope by the window. I positioned the eyepiece on Venus. I stood behind Maybelle and clasped my arms about her waist. Her body trembled against me as she leaned in to look.

“It’s startling,” she whispered.

 “Venus, the most brilliant of all.”

 “In all our years together he never once let me look through this instrument.” She swung the telescope through the heavens. Took it all in. Then she lowered it down to the black horizon. “My God! Look!”

I lifted my head from her neck which I had been gently kissing. Even with my naked eye the flame of light was visible flaring brightly upwards. The guard dogs began to whine. The padded beat of their paws as they ran in circles around the compound punctuated the stillness.

She pulled her head back from the telescope. “It’s coming from the canyon,” she said. in that moment it died away. It was the same light I had seen a few nights previous. Maybelle looked at me horrified. “What is it?”

“It could be anything,” I said. “Anything at all.”

I knew she was thinking of the urn arcing through the air, of its body shattering against the rock, and his ashy remains scattering in the winds. The whining of the dogs lowered in pitch and volume until it disappeared, and the rhythmic beat of their paws came to a standstill. Maybelle turned in my arms. She pressed her bristling goose pimpled flesh against me.

We would go back to the bed now I knew, and she would hurt me. Harder than ever before. Doling out her vengeance in the only way she knew how.

The following afternoon we sat out by the pool on the veranda eating a late breakfast. We drank the orange juice I had freshly prepared and ate a mix of dates and figs. A full pot of Colombian coffee waited beside two white cups and saucers. We looked across the flat desert to the canyon. The sun shone down, and a light breeze trickled through the scattered low brush. A green and yellow lizard slipped over the balcony. Maybelle bit lusciously into a fig and spoke as she chewed.

“Do you think we should check the canyon?” She looked at me seriously.

I laughed. “It’s too vast, Maybelle. There would be no point.”

Maybelle stared at me, annoyed by my laughter. She deliberated on something. “The telescope is pointed directly at the spot.” She shrugged. “It was only a thought. It would ease my mind.”

Her response intimidated me. We were not on equal footing yet. An element of authority persisted in her tone. I would have to proceed more cautiously.

She took a drink of orange juice and peered over the balcony. I saw something give way within her. “I was scared last night, that’s all.” She smiled back at me. “The light was unusual, don’t you think?”

“It was curious,” I replied.

“But you’re right,” she said. “It could have been anything. It would be pointless to investigate.”

The empty cups rattled in their saucers. Maybelle looked to them and then to me. The tremor ran through both of our bodies. Maybelle gripped my hand. The water sloshed in the pool, broke in waves against its sides, and splashed over the edge. Then the tremor subsided as quickly as it began.

“It’s alright,” I said. “It has passed.”

Maybelle looked terrified. We sat there waiting for more, for the aftershocks, but nothing more came.  “In all my time here, I’ve never got used to it.”

I looked across the flat country, followed the line of weakness with my eyes. “It’s the earth coming together,” I told her, “not renting apart. That’s its saving feature.”

“It will be the death of us,” she said. “Believe you me.”

The water continued to ebb in the pool. For the first time since his death Maybelle mentioned what had occurred.

“We did no wrong, did we?”

I shook my head. “We administered his medicine, that’s all.” And that was all we had done. I had no regrets about that. “Irrespective of what you thought of him, he was in great pain. We did him a service. A final act of loving generosity.”

In the end all we did was hasten up his dying. People did it all of the time. The dose was greater than the recommended one, but his passage out of this life was eased considerably.

“It was the least we could do. If you had left him in pain, if you had deliberately done that and had taken pleasure from it, that would be something else. That might give you something to trouble your conscience with. And even then who is to say whether you would have been right or wrong?”

Maybelle ran her finger across the table top. She disturbed a light covering of dust. She held out the coated tip of her finger. “A part of him? It has to be possible.”

I didn’t answer. She looked hard at her finger then ever so slowly pushed it into her mouth and sucked on it suggestively.

I looked away as though I had caught her engaged in a personal act. I firmly believed we had done the right thing, but it was true our motives had to be questioned. When Maybelle initially discussed it with me I had felt it a part of my duty. But did I also hope that we would end up together like this? Did I conspire to partake in his fortune? And yet he was going to die anyway within a matter of days or weeks, a month or two at the outside the doctor had said. So what had I altered? But of course what I had altered was the nature of our relationship. Together,  we had plotted the taking of a life. Conspirators. Implicated by each other’s actions.

As for hoping we would end up like this or that I would partake in his fortune, I honestly could not say. I could not remember consciously aspiring to any of that, still can’t, and yet a part of me pleaded guilty on this behalf.

“Depending on how this turns out I intend to sell this property,” she said.

I nodded.

“In some ways I will hate to see it go.” She got up and leaned over the balcony where the lizard had earlier crawled. The bright blue cloudy sky sloped to meet the seared horizon. Maybelle turned to face me. The front of her white silk dressing gown flapped open. Her pale lightly freckled flesh, as if the scorching Californian sun was incapable of touching it, was exposed above and below the knotted belt.

“What do you see?” she asked.

I responded with a puzzled look.

“In me? When you look at me what do you see?”

I poured myself a coffee, tasted it. “A strong woman. Someone capable of surviving out here. Like the odd rare plant that intrudes into the desert, that has no place belonging here, but somehow makes it this far. Survives against the odds. And with a fresh fall of rain blooms magnificently, beautifully, brightening up the dullness in a way unimaginable to the natural habitat.”

Maybelle laughed harshly. “My god! You do have the gift of the gab, no doubt about it. You’re a rare bloom yourself.” She turned back to the dry expanse and spoke quietly, almost to herself. “If I asked you to take me back to Ireland with you, would you? For me, would you return?”

“That would depend,” I said considering my reply, “in which capacity you were asking me to return. As staff or as something else?”

Maybelle brushed out her hair with her fingers. “What would be your choice?” .

“As staff I would return, for a while at least. But I would not remain indefinitely.”

“And as something else?”

“I suppose it would depend on the something else.”

The lower half of her gown had slipped open further and her muscular right thigh was now exposed to the hip. The inner curves of her firm breasts were clearly visible.

“What have you got in mind?”

I took another drink of coffee. Maybelle’s collar bone protruded like a primitive neck adornment. “That is up to you,” I said. “I have no mind of my own.”

Maybelle quickly pulled her gown in around her. “That’s where you are so wrong.” She was agitated, upset. “He did not buy that. He was never able to buy minds. He could bruise them, but he could not own them. That was his mistake. That was always his mistake. He thought he could recognise something flawed, something imperfect that would be available for less, and then work on it, renovate it, pretty it up to be admired by all and make a handsome profit. But the trouble was the flaw would always be there, could not be painted away, and as sure as God the weakness would finally break through to the surface bringing him and everything around him down with it.”

She clutched the lapels of her gown tightly about her chest. The knuckles of her clenched fists showed through as white as weather exposed bone.

“You are right,” I said. “Right about it all except for in one respect. What you say he recognised as flaws were not flaws at all. They were not weaknesses but strengths. Not to be hidden away but to be revealed and revered.”

A sharp wind gusted across the veranda. Maybelle braced herself against it. Out above the horizon the blue sky darkened upwards to grey as a wall of swirling particles rose like a curtain of gauze.

“Dust storm,” I said. “We better get inside quickly.”

Maybelle steadied herself. I reached across, took her arm, and led her indoors.

The storm lasted throughout the afternoon. Maybelle and I watched it from the bedroom window. The pale particles of dust repulsed and attracted one another. We could see nothing outside of ourselves. As though we too were swirling somewhere out in the universe at some point in its infinite existence where something, a planet or a star, some heavenly body, was either being created or destroyed. We held on to one another. From time to time Maybelle wept.

The storm blew over. Lifted like a fog departing. Maybelle kissed me on the cheek as if something had lifted within her also. Something that had caused her to wonder if the storm would ever pass on, if we would not be lost within it forever. She took my hand and we walked outside.

The figs, the dates, the white cups and saucers, the empty jug of orange juice, the table and chairs were covered in a shroud of yellow and red dust. The veranda, the trees, the shrubs, the carefully watered lawns. Particles floated on the pool water, dispersed beneath the surface in a murky haze. Maybelle looked at me, and in a single movement shrugged off her dressing gown. This time we understood each other perfectly. I nodded my assent and undressed. I took her hand and together we jumped into the dust-filled water.

That night Maybelle and I withdrew silently to his study. We stood either side of his telescope watching the night sky. I listened to Maybelle’s heavy breathing, and she listened to mine. The stars flickered on and off. We waited patiently until we finally saw what we had come to see. Like a meteorite burning upwards, returning to bring order to the cosmos. Maybelle bent her head into the telescope where it was trained. She raised her head and nodded her confirmation. The light extinguished. She led me back into the bedroom and made angry love.

* * *

I set out alone the following morning while Maybelle slept. I took his car and drove down to the canyon. The morning haze clung lightly above the desert. The yellow sun had begun its upwards curve. Already the day was hot. I had decided the previous night after our rough lovemaking to go out and take a look at the canyon. To see, for Maybelle’s sake, if I could find anything that would explain the light.

I looked through the telescope before leaving to where it was pointed. I observed the prominences, the distinguishing features that might help identify the exact location later.

As I drove I turned the air-conditioning off and rolled down the side window. The hot air wafted through. The skyline was tinged in pink. The soil all around warmed to an orange gleam. A kangaroo rat hopped out from a clump of sagebrush across the road in front of me. I felt the soft bump of its body beneath the front wheel. I looked back and saw its innards spewed across the road. I recalled the turkey buzzard Maybelle and I had seen the time we had been out here together.

I reached the canyon about three quarters of an hour later. I went over to the edge and looked down into the canyon where Maybelle had previously cast the urn. There was no sign of its fragments anywhere. I glanced along the canyon floor and tried to gauge the location the light had flared from. I looked back to identify the position of his house. Although the house itself was not visible, I recognised the landmarks around it. I turned again to the canyon and took my directions from the features I had observed through the telescope. I estimated that I’d need to travel another two or three miles along the canyon rim.

I drove as far as I could in the car, about another mile and a half, before the track ran out. I pulled in, turned off the engine, and began to walk through the dry dirt and brush. The gouged out gulch fell sharply to my right. The large gaseous sphere of the sun ignited high in the sky. Perspiration broke out from the pores on my forehead and underarms. My throat was already dry. I should have set out earlier. I was crazy to have come without water. It was a basic rule in the desert to always carry an extra two days food and water. The body could lose up to a gallon a day. Even when you are not thirsty you need to keep drinking. I knew this only too well, and yet I ignored this ingrained knowledge. I hadn’t even bothered to take his emergency pack from the car. Flares, first-aid and snakebite kit, matches, compass.

I walked labouriously across the baked earth. I wiped my brow and scanned back across the flat desolation to where Maybelle lay in bed sipping, no doubt, from the remainder of his champagne. We had drunk fourteen bottles between us in the last few days. Maybelle told me she was developing a taste for it, that it was becoming an obvious part of her future.

The sudden buzz of a rattlesnake stopped me dead in my tracks. A number of rocks were scattered out to my left-hand side. It could well have been hiding there in the shade. I listened keenly to trace the sound, but the rattle abruptly stopped. For a while I stayed where I was watching and listening. Then I cautiously pushed on.

I finally made it out to where I believed the light had come from. The muscles in the backs of my legs ached. My shirt sleeves were soaked with sweat. It clung to my back. I wondered if Maybelle could possibly be watching me. Looking, from his study, through the great lens seeking out my human form.

The sun scorched downwards relentlessly from high in the sky. I was exhausted by the energy I had expended walking in its heat. I rested on my hunkers and looked down into the wide gulf where the earth had once been cut through by a surging flow of water. Layer upon layer of rocks receded downwards, through time, to the oldest strata at the dried out river bed. I thought of the flash floods that could sweep through in a moment, higher than a person, careening destructively through the gullies.

I stood up and walked to the rim. I viewed the crags and razor-back ridges eroded by wind, water, and extreme cycles of heat and cold. The sun caught on the phosphorescent tint of mineral deposits and flashed back a myriad of minute glinting rainbows.

I ought to have taken binoculars along to bring the bone-dry gullies and washes closer. To look for anything out of the ordinary. Staring down this distance scared me though. I felt genuinely fearful that I would be drawn over the edge to fall helplessly like the urn which held his ashes.

I walked along the rim for over an hour forcing myself to look between the buttes and ridges, but I could see nothing unusual. I knew I would have to go down. I would have to overcome my fears and find a trail winding over the switchbacks down into the heart of the canyon.

It was approaching noon, and without water it would be reckless to attempt it. And yet I didn’t want to go back to Maybelle without having tried. It would be the death of whatever we had between us to do otherwise. To lie, to pretend I had been down there and had seen nothing that would give any explanation, was not something I would have been capable of doing, was not something she would have believed.

I searched for another fifteen minutes and found the beginnings of a trail along the side of the canyon. It could have been formed by the feet of a past nomadic tribe or by miners seeking out the minerals stored beneath the earth’s surface. It might not even have been a trail at all but the basic lie of the land.

I inhaled steeply and stepped cautiously out onto the pathway. I tried not to look down. I walked as far away from the edge as possible, clinging to the rough canyon wall, shuffling each foot along. My throat contracted with thirst and fear. A gust of wind caused me to teeter momentarily. I leaned in against the canyon wall for protection. My heart pounded deep within my skeletal frame. I felt the hard rock pressing into my spine. No more than five feet away the sheer drop below veered up to meet me. I caught my breath and held it. I stood erect, my body straightening away from the angled wall. I exhaled slowly and began to move again.

I had only come a few hundred yards. The top of the canyon was not far above my head. I had a long way to go. I eased my way along, looking straight ahead of me, until I reached the first switchback. The trail curved steeply through a sharp U-turn, narrowing at the point of curvature to less than three feet. The dry soil and loose fragments of rock scattered beneath the soles of my shoes. The worn grips of my light footwear slid dangerously over them. Particles of grit and dust trickled over the edge. I had come completely unprepared for this. The temperature was rising into the nineties. I had no water, no headwear, no decent footwear, and not enough nerve. I was weak and sweating profusely. I stopped at the curve of the trail and leaned once more against the hard jutting wall. Against my better instincts I looked down. The vast depth of the gulch was fearsome. I felt dizzy and nauseous, parched with thirst. My sense of balance wavered. I could hardly believe how irresponsible I had been. I knew the dangers of desert country as much as anyone.

The sun flashed in my eyes and dazzled me. My body swayed lightly. I tensed with the overwhelming terror of my mortality. The buzz of the rattlesnake shook loudly in my ears. The dark wide span of the vulture’s wings cast its shadow across the whole of the canyon as the vicious trembling began.

The ground shook violently beneath me. It shook its way through the base of my feet up through my spine to my skull. I thought of Maybelle lying in bed gripped with fear. I heard the loud rumble of earth and rock as it loosened and fell away. I watched it shower down around me. Then I closed my eyes, wrapped my arms tightly around myself, and listened to the catastrophe of my quaking body.

* * *

I drove back to Maybelle wondering where it would go from here. Although I could always try again, I knew I wouldn’t. Even with the right equipment, even taking the necessary precautions, I would not descend again into the canyon. His fortune, his air-conditioning, his pool, his wife were not worth that to me. Had I finally reached a moment of catharsis in my life? Had something of magnitude about my existence finally been revealed to me? Would everything be different from here on out?

But deep within me I knew that this was no different from my decision to leave Ireland. That there too I had forsaken a livelihood people would kill for. There too I had forsaken the people closest to me.

I drove along the winding desert road realising that nothing had changed, that my life would go on as it always had done in a way I would never comprehend, that the mysterious flame from the canyon was as deep as any mystery got and that understanding left you nothing but the flat logical explanations.

I looked out my side window at the solitary tree where the buzzard had been, and whether it was a trick of the light, a desert mirage, or not, I believed I saw an enormous crater just beyond it, one I had not noticed before. I would take Maybelle out to that in the early morning, I decided. Before the sun came up. And whether the crater existed or not, we would make love there and watch together the fiery dawning of a new day. I would tell her of my decision to leave and allow her, in her lovemaking, to hurt me as she had never hurt me before. Not by any act of violence, but by an unprovoked act of tenderness. Assuming we were permitted that final grace.

— Gerard Beirne


Gerard Beirne is an Irish writer who moved to Norway House, a Cree community in Northern Manitoba, in 1999 where he lived for three years. While living there, he interviewed Elders in the community and edited for publication an anthology of those interviews. He received an MFA in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University and is a past recipient of The Sunday Tribune/Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year award. He was appointed Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick 2008-2009 and is a Fiction Editor with The Fiddlehead.

His novel The Eskimo in the Net (Marion Boyars Publishers, London, 2003) was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award 2004 for the best book of Irish fiction and was selected as Book of the Year 2004 by The Daily Express. His most recent novel Turtle was published by Oberon Press, 2009.

His short story “Sightings of Bono” was adapted into a short film featuring Bono (U2) by Parallel Productions, Ireland in 2001 and released on DVD in 2004.

His poetry collection Games of Chance: A Gambler’s Manual has just been published by Oberon Press- Fall 2011. His collection of poetry Digging My Own Grave was published by Dedalus Press, Dublin. An earlier version won second place in the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award.

Jul 032012

This is a hoot. My old pal Russell Working has written a novel called The Hit, a portion of which was printed in Narrative. Now Russell has produced a brilliantly self-ironic book trailer in which he, his wife and his son act as characters from the book insisting that the book NOT be published. Russell, who worked as a journalist in Vladivostok and has first hand knowledge of the Russian underworld of which he writes, does a turn as a heavy with a thick Hollywood/Russian accent.

Russell Working is a terrific writer, a winner of the Iowa  Short Fiction Prize, an intrepid journalist, also a former colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

For your delectation I include also below a short excerpt from the novel, which is not comical at all, but a richly detailed and suspenseful story of memory and revenge reminiscent of Martin Cruz Smith’s great Russia-based thrillers.





MAMA ALWAYS said it was a sin to throw away bread, a sacrilege to destroy a book.  But one day when the tornado sirens were howling on Devon Avenue, Alexei Kuznetsov found three boxes of orphaned books under the awning in front of the Cherry Orchard Deli & Productery, where he worked, and he was unable to save any of them.

He did not know why anyone would leave literature outside a business that dealt in Baltika beer and loops of sausage and jars of slick, pickled mushrooms.  Perhaps they had mistaken the deli for the Russian Oasis bookstore down the street and thought the books could be resold.  One had to admit the name Cherry Orchard lent itself to confusion.

The sky was boiling, dirty, Jovian, with flashes of lightning in the clouds and distant gray deluges slanting to the south.  A pervert wind was molesting two Indian girls, flinging grit and chip packages and attempting to strip them of their saris.  The radio said tornadoes had skipped around someplace called Minooka, wrapping a trampoline around a telephone pole and peeling the roof off a strip mall, but the danger had passed here in Chicago.  Still, the sirens bayed, their legs snapped in wolf traps.

The abandoned books all concerned Russia and the Soviet Union, but they were mostly nonfiction by Western journalists and translations of classics.  Lermontov, Pushkin, Dostoyevsky.  The spines were broken, the pages mold-speckled, as spotty as sparrow eggs; besides, everything was in English.  When Alexei consulted his boss, Yakov Isayevich told him to trash the books.

“Maybe an American would like them,” Alexei said.  “They might learn something about Russia.”

“Such as yourself, you mean?  You’re all Yankees, you kids.  Pants, hair.  You want to compound your ignorance, take them home.”  Yakov Isayevich had lived his adult life in Leningrad and Chicago, but the Odessa accent of his youth lent his harangues a comic air.  He was bald and mustachioed, and dewlaps hung beneath his veiny chin.  “Russia is a thousand-year-long train wreck, that’s all anybody needs to know.  Go dump them in back and clear out some space in the freezer, we’ve got a delivery coming.”

Alexei had walked to work.  Any books he saved he would have to carry home, along with the groceries Mama had asked him to pick up, and then she would probably make him take the literature to the Goodwill.  He stacked the boxes and hauled them all in one trip to the alley in back.

Overnight, somebody had dumped a dead pit bull in the trash, its ears trimmed to ridges of scar so they would not be ripped from its head in a fight.  Clearly, it had lost anyway.  Its muzzle was gashed and throat torn, but the creature had died clenching a piece of hide in its teeth.  The dog lay in a heap of onion peels from a pickled herring dish the girls had made yesterday.  On a muggy July day the stench was overpowering: garbage, onions, dog.  Alexei began tossing the books in.  When one tome on Ivan the Terrible hit the pit bull’s freckled abdomen, the monster gasped, “Huh?” and gave up the ghost, exhaling a whiff of vomit and meat.

As he crouched there, flipping literature up into the trash, a black Hummer H2 with temporary plates pulled up and parked in a tow-away zone, blocking the alley by the refrigerated container that hunkered beside the door.  He stood to wave the vehicle on, but the driver set the flashers and got out–whereupon a colony of fire ants spilled down Alexei’s spine and nested, stinging, in his armpits and groin.

A beefy man, mid-forties.  Hair grayer than before, mouth drooping, cheeks roughened to chicken flesh by hard drinking.  Wearing not a tracksuit anymore, but business attire, with gold cufflinks and a watchband that dangled like a bracelet on his wrist.  His buzz cut was receding, leaving an islet of mown stubble where the widow’s peak had once been.  His head was narrow, and there was a bump on his brow, the defining characteristic in an otherwise plain and ruddy face.

Alexei had noticed the lump when had last seen the man, eleven years ago in Vladivostok, on a night he and his parents had been heading out to a party.  The light was out in the lift, and the doors opened up on a blinding lobby where two men waited.  In their hands were bulky black things that began firing bullets into the Kuznetsovs.  After killing Papa and wounding Mama, the taller one, this one, leveled his machine pistol at Alexei.  His partner grabbed his arm, apparently some kind of wimp who was squeamish about murdering children.  “Come on, Garik,” he said, “who gives a fuck about the kid?”  That was how Alexei learned the man’s name.

The bump on his brow made you think he must have been knocked on the head.  But now, after all these years, it was still there–a cyst or abnormality of the forehead boss.  A vestigial horn, almost.

From the Hummer emerged a blonde in low pants that revealed a tattoo of the sun on her sacrum when she knelt to straighten her sandal.  Gold bangles, gold earrings with flecks of emerald, a diamond on her wedding ring, worn, in the Russian style, on the right hand.  A jewel in her navel like an odalisque.

Alexei half expected Garik to say, “Jesus Christ, kid, what the devil are you doing here?”  But he didn’t–why should he, who would associate a teenager in Chicago with the seven-year-old screaming on the floor in Vladivostok eleven years ago?

“Can we get in through this door?” the blonde said.

Garik grabbed a book from Alexei’s hand.  “What are you doing?”

“My boss told me to.”

“No, no, no!” Garik cried with an anguished look on his face.  “A Russian trashing books?  Ignorance!”

“They’re in English,” Alexei managed to say.

“Young man, books are precious,” Garik said.  “Leave them, for God’s sake.  I’ll find a home for them.  So, can we get in this door, or do we have to go around front?”

Alexei said, “If–I don’t–”

“It’s an either-or question,” said Garik.

“You can get in, but customers are supposed to go around.  My boss–”

The face silenced him.  Garik’s forehead was furrowed except for the skin over the bump, like a hummock left unplowed in a field.  Green eyes, the sclera yellowed.  A cirrhotic symptom.

“So, you like my face, or what?” Garik said.

“No.  I mean, not ‘no,’ I just–”

“I’m flattered, but I’m afraid I’m taken.”

“Oh, Garik, he doesn’t mean anything,” said the blonde.  And then to Alexei: “He’s just teasing.”  She was in her mid-thirties, perhaps, and had a beautiful face that was flawed by odd, oval nostrils.  Her gold necklace had a name on it: MAYA.

Garik shrugged, as if concluding that this simpleton boy was merely tongue-tied in the presence of a businessman of such self-evident success.  Deeming this reaction acceptable, he pushed past Alexei and entered the stockroom and kitchen, stinking of vodka and bile.  Maya followed, her perfume cloying and chemical, like a Syrian peach cordial.

By the time Yakov Isayevich came out to check on Alexei, his panic attack was spinning to pieces like a lump of watery clay on a pottery wheel.

“Alyosha, how come you’re letting customers in through the back?” Yakov Isayevich said.  “Hey, what are you, cataloging a library?  Just dump the books and be done with it.”  He grabbed two books Alexei had set aside, the Bulgakov and Dostoyevsky, and trashed them before Alexei managed to say that the customer wanted them.  Yakov Isayevich shrugged.  “What in hell’s hounds is that?” he added, looking in the Dumpster.

“I don’t know, a pit bull,” Alexei said.  “Somebody–.”

“Were they fighting it?  What’s wrong with people these days?”

Alexei felt a wave of dizziness and grabbed the Dumpster for support.

“Whoa, there,” Yakov Isayevich said.  “Are you dizzy?”

“I was in too much of a rush this morning for–”

Amid the aftershocks of the panic attack he could not access the word, starts with a B, the thing with eggs and sausage and toast; and in its place was a blank, like a swearword bleeped out on TV.

“Your mama lets you head out to work without breakfast?” Yakov Isayevich said.

Breakfast.  “She’d already left for work.”

“Oi, the poor woman.  So you don’t know how to fry yourself an egg?  Listen, son, when you get a minute, grab yourself a pastry.  So, is this their Hummer?  Well, I suppose they’ll be gone soon.  Get inside and make yourself useful mopping the floor.  Some lady dropped a jar of beets, and everybody’s tracking it all over like a murder scene.”


The Cherry Orchard was an old Chicago storefront, long and high-ceilinged, and the odor of salted fish and chicken fat hung so thick in the air it permeated the paint on the walls.  The only cherries came in jars, sweet and tart, with pits, the kind Russians spooned into tea.  As one entered the main room from the back kitchen and office, a refrigerated counter on the right extended almost out to the front window.  To the left was a wall of shelves, interrupted by a doorway into a second room, also facing Devon Avenue.  Along the ceiling were posters advertising beer and pelmeni, alternating with American flags.  (Unlike Polish or Ukrainian grocers, Yakov Isayevich never posted the colors of his homeland.)  The women at the deli counter wore aprons and white hats, and behind the glass were hams, dried salmon, fatback, whitefish, redfish, salads, cakes.  Loops of sausage and the carcasses of smoked chickens hung along a mirror on the wall, amid signs that read, “mimosa salad” and “Telephone cards: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland.”  Opposite, the shelves were laden with canned pâté and fish in tomato sauce; bottles of nectar, kvas, vodka, and Moldavian wines; boxes of tea; black rye bread; jars of pickled mushrooms and cucumbers; packages of dried macaroni, barley, and baby food; shrink-wrapped slabs of glazed gingerbread from Tula; and boxes of meringue cookies.  Yakov Isayevich had labeled them, in English, “marshmallows.”

The first time Alexei had entered the Cherry Orchard, he must have been eleven, their first winter in Chicago.  Mama bought him a slab of Tula bread, and the smell of jam and gingerbread had sucked him in through a puncture in spacetime into a singularity containing a store outside the redbrick kremlin in Tula, where he and his parents had bought picnic supplies for a trip to Tolstoy’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana.  Nowadays, he knew nostalgia was commonplace at the Cherry Orchard, you saw it in the faces of everyone who wandered in.  That’s what Yakov Isayevich dealt in: longing for a land everyone had spent their lives trying to escape.  You could survive for a month in Russia on what it cost you to load up on groceries at the deli, and even by American standards it was pricy (three dollars for a liter of kvas, four for a package of cookies), but for homesick immigrants, the taste of the motherland was worth it.  In any event, when one spent eight hours a day in a workplace, the nostalgia disappeared, and the store had long since lost the associations with Alexei’s own vanquished Russia.

He wheeled in a yellow plastic bucket and wringer, steering it with a mop drowned headfirst in the muddy water.  Garik was nowhere to be seen, he must have drifted to the other room.  A shambles of sugar beets, reeking of vinegar, had been trampled all over, and gory tributaries flowed into the deli counter.  Yakov Isayevich had set up a yellow plastic marker with an icon of a man slipping and flying into the air, and there was a warning whose multilingual fluency seemed irrelevant to the Urdu and Malayalam and Russian of Devon Avenue: “CAUTION CUIDADO ACHTUNG ATTENTION.”  Alexei knelt to shovel up the beets in a dust pan.  As he worked, he maintained a peripheral awareness of the shoppers, mostly women in jeans or skirts he could see through against the light from the window, and when Maya nearly stepped on him, he duckwalked out of her way.  “Oi, sorry,” she said, and touched his head.  A pair of men’s shoes shuffled in.  The left foot detached itself from the floor and scratched the right ankle.  Alexei glanced up to see Garik surveying the liquor.

He stood and sloshed the mop on the floor and then in the bucket.  A feeding frenzy in a blood-muddied sea.

Garik beckoned Darya Vanderkloot, a cook who sometimes lent a hand at the counter, and sought her counsel on some point concerning the vodka, ignoring her pleas that really, she knew nothing about the subject, she only drank beer and that rarely, Yakov Isayevich was the one to ask.  She was in her mid-twenties and dressed to show off her plump, sexy figure, wearing jeans that she apparently applied with a paint brush, yet she was aloof toward the mere males who took notice of her.  They were all horny pigs, apparently, for lowering their gaze the cleft that swallowed her zipper in front.  Garik nodded as she spoke, his brows compressed, as if seeking, within the fine print of the vodka label, the wisdom of the kabbalah.

Irrationally, Alexei was annoyed at Darya.  She shouldn’t flounce about like that for some mafik.  She was no supermodel, with her Russo-Mongolian features, but her eyes, grant her that: long-lashed, brown, slightly bugged, their shape emphasized with a mascara brush.  Even in summer she was pale as kefir.  She said she never tanned because she was afraid of skin cancer.  Alexei supposed she was vain about her hair, lush and black.

Garik removed a bottle from the shelf.  “Genghis Khan Vodka.  The guys would get a kick out of that.  Where did you get this stuff?”

“Yakov Isayevich, our boss, sometimes he finds these deals on the Internet,” she said.

“But Genghis Khan!” Garik said.  “Why not Attila the Hun cognac or Hitler schnapps?”

“It’s a Mongolian brand,” she said.  “They revere Genghis as the Greeks do Alexander.  Conqueror of empires.  Some people say he was born in Russia, in Chitinskaya oblast.  A village called Balei.”

“So, do you have any of those little sampler bottles I could try, to make sure it’s drinkable?  Ah, well, it couldn’t be too awful, could it?  We taught them how to drink, Mongolians.  Surely they’ve learned how to distill vodka properly.”

He decided to buy a bottle, no, three.  And a case of the Finlandia, too, in case the Genghis proved execrable.

Hearing the size of the order, Yakov Isayevich, who had been arranging cans on a shelf, moved closer with an expression that said he did not wish to intrude but was at hand, if need be, to assist.  But Garik’s stare remained fixed on Darya.  He grabbed her upper arm, slipping his fingers between her bicep and breast, as he murmured something to her.  Alexei caught the word, “ty”–the informal you–as if she were his girlfriend or daughter.  He was old enough, the freaking satyr.

Darya glanced at Alexei pleadingly, but he thought, That’s what you get.  If you don’t like it, tell him to take his paws off of you.

Releasing Darya, Garik hummed to himself and shuffled toward the window.  He glanced over the shelves, the stand containing magazines and postcards, the refrigerator packed with frozen pelmeni, then returned toward the cash register.  Something occurred to him.  For the first time he looked Yakov Isayevich in the eye.  “Do you cater?”

“Certainly,” Yakov Isayevich said. “We’ve done parties of up to fifty people.  With enough notice we could do more.”

Garik called over his shoulder, “Mayechka, did you hear that?” and then realized the blonde was right behind him.  On the counter beside his booze she set a basket containing pelmeni, a bag of ginger cookies, and several boxes of tea.

“Oh, it wouldn’t be that big,” Maya said.  “Just a few friends.”

“We prefer at least a week’s notice,” Yakov Isayevich said.  “More, if it’s a complicated menu.”

Garik turned to the deli case.  “‘Israeli salad.’  Why Israeli?”

“It’s just a variety of salad,” said Yakov Isayevich.  “If you would like a sample–?”

“No samples for the products of our old allies in Mongolia, but for the ‘Zionist entity’–”

“We make it here in the store.  It’s just a name.”

“So how did your authentic Russians of Chicago become so enamored of Jewish cuisine?” Garik said.

Yakov Isayevich hesitated, surprised, perhaps, yet still open to an inoffensive interpretation of the remark, because if something anti-Semitic was implied, it had been so gratuitous.  “Perhaps,” he said at last, “because many of them are Jews.”

A dollar coin appeared in Garik’s hand, and he began flipping and catching it.  “That’s very interesting, my friend,” he said.  “It would explain all the synagogues.  I’m not complaining.  I used to work for a Jew, and he was the best boss I ever had–a great guy.”

Yakov Isayevich’s ears flushed and a look of alarm flashed in his eyes, as if he was considering how to redirect the topic of conversation without confronting a customer.  Removing a towel from his shoulder, he absently bound his right hand in it.  Then noticing what he was doing, he blushed and pulled it off.

But Garik himself changed the subject.  “So tell me: do you offer any discounts for volume?”

“I can offer ten percent if the order’s over two hundred dollars,” Yakov Isayevich said.  “I’m just a small businessman, there’s no profit for me if I go any lower.  America isn’t the gold mine people expect when they arrive here, I think you’ll discover that.  I’m assuming you’re new here?”

Garik ignored this.  He raised the Genghis and examined it against the window, perhaps looking for the sediment found in bad vodka.  “What if I just take it?” he said.  “A luxury tax.”

Garik smiled at his own little joke but Yakov Isayevich did not join in the merriment.  He indicated Alexei with a glance.  “I wouldn’t advise that.”

Garik looked at the young man who stood gripping the mop handle.  It surprised Alexei to discover that he was taller that the hit man.

“Yes, I’ve met your ferocious young bouncer,” Garik said.  “An intimidating youngster, clearly.”  There was a touch of benevolent amusement in his tone.  “So you’ll, what, mop me to death if I try anything?”  Garik aimed his forefinger at Alexei.  He cocked his thumb.  He said, “Bang.”

“Oh, Garik, pay the man and stop fooling around,” Maya said.  Then to Alexei: “Sometimes people don’t get his humor.”

“I don’t know when to shut my trap, she means.  No, no, no, no, don’t deny it, Mayechka, it’s true, I’m the first to admit it.”

Garik fished a zippered men’s purse from his suit coat, fumbled about in it, and handed Darya a credit card.  He glanced around, as if to make sure everyone had noticed.  Perhaps he did not know that every small-time gangbanger on the West Side possesses a credit card.  Darya handed it to Yakov Isayevich, who had gone around behind the counter.  Leaving his mop leaning in the bucket, Alexei moved a step closer, trying to glimpse the last name on the card, but Yakov Isayevich’s hand closed around it.

“All right, then, make that three bottles of the Genghis,” Garik said.  “A case of the Finlandia.  A case, no, two of Hennessy.  And a couple bottles of this Armenian wine, semisweet.  Some Moldavian, too–why not?  Some of this Zolotoi Rog: oh, let’s say four bottles.  And of course, we can’t ignore the beer drinkers.  The Baltika Number 6: how many bottles are in a case?  Only twelve?  Four cases, then.”

Garik turned to Alexei.  “Hey, tough guy, are those Kara-Kums I see on the shelf behind you?”

“We’re out today, but we have other candies, Russian candies,” Yakov Isayevich answered.  “Alyosha, can’t you find somewhere else to stand?  See, we have–”

Garik silenced Yakov Isayevich by tossing him his keys.  “Listen, Gramps,” he said, “maybe you and the boy could start organizing the cases while the girl here rings us up.”

Yakov Isayevich set the keys by the cash register.  “Let’s make sure your card goes through.  Then Alyosha will help you.”

Genghis, Finlandia, Hennessy: he named off the items as he rang them up.  He swiped the credit card, and everyone, Garik included, stared at the cash register, as if in suspense, until it began spitting out a receipt.

Now Yakov Isayevich handed Alexei the keys.  “Go carry everything out for the comrade while we finish up.”


Out in back, Maya supervised the loading of the vehicle, standing close enough to brush Alexei’s arm with her breasts as she told him how to set boxes just so.  When he finished the groceries, he glanced at the books, then at Maya.  She rolled her eyes but nodded, so he loaded them in the Hummer as well.  When Garik emerged, biting his cuticles, she rushed over and kissed him, lest there be any doubt that he was the bull elephant here.  An old Honda with a plastic sheet in place of the rear window puttered up the alley, and the driver, an unshaven man in a striped Russian navy T-shirt, raised his fist to punch the horn.  But as he looked over the scene–Garik, the bejeweled blonde, the burly kid loading boxes, the Hummer itself–some assembly line in his head seemed to start up and send down the conveyer belt a conclusion: Mafia.  His hand opened into gesture that said, No problem, friends, you carry on, and he backed up the length of the block and around the corner onto North Washtenaw.  Alexei went inside for the last box, and when he returned Maya was sitting in the Hummer.

“You’re a strong guy,” Garik said.  “You wrestle?”

“Box a little.  I’m training for a tournament in a few weeks.  In high school I played American football, but I graduated in June.”

“A Russian footballer!  Well done, of course.  I’ll bet you taught those pansy-assed Yankees a lesson or two.  What kind of–how do you say it?  What position?  I don’t know anything about football except they all dress like cosmonauts.  Did you wear one of those helmets?”

“Everyone wears a helmet.  I was what they call a linebacker, also tight end on offense, but they hardly ever played me.”  Alexei said the words in English–leinbekker, teit end— although they could mean nothing to a Russian; the act of summoning an explanation was beyond him as he stood face-to-face with the killer.  “All I did was work my ass off in practice.”

“Well, excellent, nonetheless,” Garik said.  “What’s your name?”

“Kuznetsov, Alexei.”

The family name did not register with Garik.  It was as commonplace in Russia as Smith.

Garik shook Alexei’s hand, one was unable to avoid it.  “Pleased to meet you, Alyosha.  Igor Andreyevich.  Call me Garik.  Been in the States long?”

“A while,” Alexei said.

“Are you a citizen, then?” Garik asked.

“I have a green card.”

“How convenient.  Listen, if we do have you guys cater a party, make sure you work that night.”  Garik closed the hatch of the Hummer and lowered his voice.  “Darya, too, she’s hot.  An Internet bride, am I right?  Fuck the husband, we’ll show her a good time.  As for you, you might meet some people who can help you out in life, if you ever want to do anything other than mop floors for a Jew.”

Garik pulled a dollar bill from his purse and tucked it into Alexei’s shirt pocket, then slapped him on the back.  Alexei removed the cash and tried to hand it back.

“I can’t accept tips,” he said.

“Sure, you can, boss doesn’t have to know,” Garik said.  “Well, I like this little deli of yours.  Like it very much.  I’ll be seeing you.”

As Garik drove off, Alexei noted the license number: a temporary Illinois plate, 909F911.  Easy to remember.  Nine-eleven.  He committed it to memory.

He recalled the dollar in his hand.  Except it wasn’t a one, it was a one hundred.  The bill stank of gasoline.  Somebody had stamped Benjamin Franklin’s face with a Web address: wheresgeorge.com.

Alexei tossed the bill in the trash, along with the dead dog, and went inside to wash his hands.


So, Garik, again.  Short for Igor, patronymic of Andreyevich.  But what Alexei needed was a last name.  The Beast: as a boy he had seized onto this name during a scripture reading in the church he and Mama attended in Cyprus after they had fled Vladivostok, during that period when she had abandoned her atheism and converted to Orthodoxy.  Who is like unto the beast, who is able to make war with him?  It had made an impression on him as a, what, seven- or eight-year-old?  Seven heads and ten horns.  Diadems, and on his head were blasphemous names.  They worshiped the dragon because he gave his authority to the beast.  And so it had now come to pass that God or fate, having tested the faithfulness of their servant Alexei Kuznetsov, had vouchsafed him a chance encounter with the man whose face had haunted him for eleven years.  Were there public records of temporary license plates that would help him locate Garik’s last name?  It hit him that he could still find a way to look at the credit card receipt.

Easier said than done.  When the deli was busy, there was no way he could crowd in as the cash register rang open and banged shut, and when it quieted down, he did not have access to the drawer.  And if he asked somebody to open it, he would have to explain why.  But that night, as the end of his shift approached, he sought Darya’s help.  There was a lull in customers, and she stood at the front window, her back to the room as she faced the street.  One by one, she extended each arm parallel to the floor, and rotated it in a motion that concluded with a graceful twist of the wrist as she brought her splayed fingertips and thumb together, like a lotus folding inward at night.  She was wearing a wedding ring on her left hand, American-style, he noticed.  He really knew nothing about her.

Noticing Alexei’s stare, she stopped and returned to the counter.  “An old dance move,” she said.

“You’re a dancer?” he said.

“Oh, no.  There was a student company when I was in university.”

“Listen, Darya, I have a question: did you catch that customer’s surname?”

“Which customer’s?” she said.

“The guy who bought all the booze.  Expensive suit, bump on his forehead.  Igor Andreyevich, he called himself.”

“Garik the mafik?” Darya said.  “No, he didn’t say.”

Somehow it surprised Alexei that she had recognized Garik as Mafia, he had imagined she had been taken in by his airs as a businessman.  “Could you sneak a look at the credit card receipt?”

“How come?” she said.

“Just curious.”

“I doubt Yakov Isayevich would want me divulging a customer’s personal information.”

Alexei stared at her for a moment, then walked off.

A few minutes later Darya found him wheeling a hand truck stacked with boxes of ground beef into the refrigerated container; the delivery that had been promised all day had finally arrived just as he was preparing to leave.

“Voskresensky,” she said.

He looked at her blankly.

“That’s the name on the credit card.  Igor A. Voskresensky.”

Voskresensky.  How simple it had been to obtain the name after all these years.  He almost felt the receipt had been there in the drawer from the day he started work here, if only he had thought to look.

“What’s the matter, Alyosha?” she said.  “You look so dark.”

“Nothing,” he said.  “Just remembering something.”

Yakov Isayevich came humming in through the door.  “Well, if it isn’t the two coconspirators, whispering sweet nothings in each other’s ears.  I knew I’d find you lovebirds huddled up back here, all kissy-faced and–”

Darya walked out on him mid-sentence and slammed the steel door behind her.


That evening as Alexei walked home just after eight, the air everywhere, from the store to the street to the apartment, was dense with dark matter that seemed to warp the buildings and trees, boiling up gusts of gaseous brick and bark were drawn back into the source like solar prominences.  The afternoon storm had blown off and the sky was clearing.  The moon had risen at an altitude of forty-eight degrees, a distorted sliver of it orbited four hundred thousand kilometers out.  It had reached first quarter just over an hour and a half ago, he recalled with some surprise, as if the appearance of Garik would have interfered with the waxing and waning of the moon.

The third-floor hallway of his apartment held a confluence of odors: of somebody’s curry dinner, of the shoes (sixteen of them) outside a Jordanian cabdriver’s door, of the dinner Mama had baked–beef and potatoes and sour cream and cheese.  She liked cooking this dish because she alone could prepare it to Alexei’s satisfaction, and it pleased her to watch him devour a full casserole pan in two sittings.  When he entered the apartment, Mama laid aside her copy of Inostrannaya Literatura and rushed over to relieve him of his grocery bags as he stepped out of his shoes.

“Rabbit, I was calling you, why didn’t you answer?” she said.  “Well, how was I supposed to know you’re on your way home if you don’t set down the bags and take my call?  Come on, dinner’s ready.”

Objectively speaking, forty-one wasn’t that old, but Vera Anatolyevna lived like an elderly widow for whom the world was a trial best avoided.  She hennaed her hair, and only snorted when he told her that in America such clown-red hues are affected primarily by artists, anarchists, and spiky-haired lesbians.  In Chicago, where the heating always works, she dressed in a babushka’s summer housecoat year-round.  Once slender and beautiful, she had thickened and aged beyond her years.  She worked as a cleaning lady and cook in a women’s shelter, but otherwise she seldom left the apartment except for forays to the bookstore or church, where, after kissing the icons, she always hid herself behind a pillar back in the saint-crowded gloom.  She insisted her disfigurement was so horrific that it caused passersby to gape and skateboarders to stumble into lampposts and strangers in banks to blurt out, “What happened to your face?” but in truth her scars were hardly noticeable.  There was a dent in the right temple where the bullet had entered, and it had left through her left eye without touching her brain, thank God, so there was no exit wound, only a glass eye that could pass for the real thing except when her socket began weeping.  On such days she left the incredulous orb in a tumbler on her nightstand, and she wore a flesh-colored eye patch to cover the collapsed lid.  He had given up trying to convince her that she could lead a normal life if she would just forget about other people’s reactions.  Yes, easy for him to say.  But if one wished to talk about appearance, the real problem was the increasing hardness of her face, and that was self-inflicted: the bags under her eyes, the violet tinge to her nose, the spider veins creeping across her cheeks.  A drinker’s face.  No doubt she was unaware of the worsening of her looks.  The only mirrors in the apartment had been on the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, but Mama had made Alexei remove the reflective triptych, exposing shelves cluttered with toothbrushes and razors and a tube of triple antibiotic cream.  He kept a mirror in his backpack so he could comb his hair or check for bleeding zits after shaving blind in the shower.

Mama touched the skin between his eyebrows.  “I wish you wouldn’t scowl all the time, you’re getting permanent frown lines at eighteen years old.”

He flashed an insipid smile, and she laughed.  They lugged the grocery bags back to the kitchen and sorted everything into the refrigerator and cupboards.

“I know I annoy you with my calls,” Mama said, “but it’s just that there are gangs out there and I worry.  I saw a program on TV.  Black Gangster Disciple Nation, Mafia Insane Vicelords: who comes up with these names?  Conservative Vicelords, it sounds like an Italian political party.  Listen, a babushka was raped in a home invasion last week, six blocks from here.”

“I’m sure that had nothing to do with gangs, Mama, it was just some maniac,” he said.

“That’s supposed to comfort me?  The point is, I can never relax when you’re out.”

He dumped a bag of flour into a plastic container where the mice couldn’t get to it.  “Mamul, listen,” he said, “I need to tell you something.  Today–”

“Here, open this, would you?  My wrists are hurting again.”

Mama handed him a brandy bottle, and he twisted off the cap.  She splashed two hundred milliliters into a crystal carafe and added a shot into a dainty liqueur glass with a stem.  Despite Alexei’s age, Yakov Isayevich let him take home whatever spirits Mama requested.  A tab was kept, but whenever Alexei brought a payment from his mother, however paltry, Yakov Isayevich would mutter in embarrassment and write off the rest of the bill.  Mama was the only person to whom he showed such generosity, for reasons unknown to Alexei.  Yakov Isayevich seemed to think he was staying within the limits of the law if no cash exchanged hands at the time a teenager walked out of the store with a bottle of Georgian cognac or a case of strong beer.  But at the Cherry Orchard they were contemporary Russians, not Soviet citizens of a former generation, and nobody would dream of informing the Liquor Control Commission.

“It’s good you don’t drink,” she said.

Since Alexei had graduated in June, Mama had taken to commenting on his abstinence, often neutrally and sometimes even praising it, but her demeanor contradicted her words.  You’re a man, already, join me in a nightcap if you wish.

“I just don’t see the point of alcohol, that’s all,” he said.

“You should join the Mormons.  Soon you’ll be wearing a white shirt and tie and that special underwear.  I’m teasing, sonny, you’re right.  Once you do see the point of alcohol, it’s too late.”

With her glass she clinked Alexei’s mug of water and threw down her cognac à la russe.

“It’s never too late, Mama,” he said.

“Oi, Alyosha, don’t start.  So, are you hungry?  Good, sit down.”

Mama had eaten earlier, but after bringing him a plate, she served herself a “symbolic portion, for company” and joined him at the kitchen table.

“You were starting to say something,” she said.

At once he knew he could not tell her about Garik.  He could not say why, but he needed to sort this through on his own.  “Did you hear the sirens this afternoon?” he said.

“What sirens?”

“Are you kidding, it sounded like an air raid at Stalingrad.  Were you at the shelter?”

“No, I told you I’d only be working a half-day,” she said.  “They need me Saturday.  I was home all afternoon.”

“Yakov Isayevich tried to get us to take refuge in the basement, but then we heard the tornado warning was limited to Will and Kendall counties.”

“Maybe I slept through it,” she said.

You always do.  Mama refilled her glass from her carafe and fixed her cockeyed, teary gaze on Alexei.  She had been in this state for weeks after they had fled Russia for their second home in Limassol, Cyprus.  She spent her days in the twilight of the master bedroom, the exterior shutters rolled down to cover the sliding glass doors.  Alexei would lie next to her on the bed as a fan on a tall stand sent a ticklish breeze back and forth over them, and they would remain there in silence for hours, holding hands, as her warm cognac breath came and went.  It was a fortnight before she even thought to ask a Russian friend to enroll him in an English school.  One day he came home with a pocket full of candy and a Japanese comic Ruslan had lent him, but when he arrived, Mama was missing.  He took the elevator down and searched the neighborhood for hours, checking back frequently in case she’d come home.  Finally long after dark, he curled up on the Persian carpet under the baby grand piano and cried.  An orphan now.  Oh, Mama!  A persistent knocking roused him.  He did not think he had slept but there was drool on the carpet, hair on his tongue.  At the door, a Cypriot woman with hirsute hands said in English, “Russian lady, Russian lady!” and a great deal more in Greek.  She took him by the hand and led him down the stairway.  Mama lay passed out on the landing three flights down, her housecoat hitched up to reveal a tuft of pubic hair coiling from her flowered panties.  Together, he and the woman got Mama to the lift, dragged her back home, toppled her into bed.

“Sirens, I don’t see what the big deal is,” she said.  “You can’t get tornadoes in a city because of the skyscrapers.”

“Mama, that’s ridiculous,” he said.  “Besides, there are no skyscrapers on Devon.”

“Perhaps, but I’m still here, along with the rest of Chicago.  So what else happened today?”

“Oh, nothing,” Alexei said.  “Really, it’s boring to talk about.  Stocking shelves.  Breaking down boxes.  Some idiot shoplifted a bottle of whiskey, but I ran him down while Yakov Isayevich called the cops.  No, he was not a gang member, just a stupid kid.  For awhile this morning the scanner was acting up so we could only accept cash.  Customers become so rude when this happens, they announce they’re going to go to Jewel-Osco from now on.  I guess you can’t blame them, but why is it our fault?  We’re just employees.  Also there was some idiot mafik who came in, kept pawing Darya.  Apparently she’s incapable of telling him to keep his hands off her.  I’m not going to chaperone her if she can’t even speak up for herself.  I wanted to stave his head in.”

“Alyosha, must you speak so violently?” she said.  “I won’t have that in my house.”

He gulped a forkful of beef and potatoes.  “How was your day?”

“Oh, you know me, focus on the positive,” she said.  “There’s hope the clients will escape the abuse the longer they’re with us.  Although, sometimes–.  That Bengali went back to her husband.  Also, there was a Russian, I had to interpret for her, she barely speaks English.  Don’t laugh, I’ve done it before!  Enough, I don’t like dwelling on bad things.  Did you meet anyone interesting?”

Alexei sawed the heel from the loaf of bread she had baked.  “Mama, there are always girls in the store, and all of them are married.  I don’t think there is a single Russian girl my age in Chicago.  Pretty ones, anyway, I’m not talking about Masha.”

“Nonsense, she’s a lovely girl,” Mama said.  “Anyway, a mother has to ask.”

Alexei twirled his mug of water on the table.

“Don’t, you’ll spill it.  Was Yakov Isayevich yelling at you again?  You’re so gloomy.”

“Yakov Isayevich doesn’t bother me,” Alexei said.  “If he wants to stress out about everything and drop dead of a heart attack at sixty-five, that’s his problem.  I’m just tired, is all.  I slept badly again.  Five and a half hours.  It doesn’t matter, I can get by on that if I snooze on my lunch break.”

“Maybe you should go back on Zoloft,” she said.

“I haven’t had a panic attack in years.”

Then the dizziness and fire ants returned, and Alexei excused himself–“Urgent need”–and hurried to the bathroom, where he sat on the toilet with the lids down, fisting his eyes as he rode out a hurricane of black locusts and burnt straw.

— Russell Working

An excerpt of an earlier version of this novel first appeared in Narrative magazine.


Russell Working is a journalist and short story writer whose work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, The TriQuarterly Review, and Zoetrope: All-Story.

His collection, The Irish Martyr, won the University of Notre Dame’s Sullivan Award. He was the youngest winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, for his book Resurrectionists. He is a staff writer for Ragan Communications in Chicago and has taught in Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA program in creative writing.

Russell’s journalism has often informed his fiction. His Pushcart Prize-winning The Irish Martyr,written after an assignment in Sinai, tells of an Egyptian girl’s obsession with an Irish sniper who has enlisted in the Palestinian cause. After reporting on the trafficking in North Korean women as wives and prostitutes in China, he wrote the short story Dear Leader, about a refugee from the North who is sold to a Chinese peasant.

Russell formerly worked as a staff reporter at the Chicago Tribune. There he exposed cops and a Navy surgeon general who padded their résumés with diploma mill degrees, and covered the international trade in cadavers for museum exhibitions.

He lived for nearly eight years abroad in Australia, the Russian Far East, and Cyprus, reporting from the former Soviet Union, China, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, the Philippines, Turkey, Greece, and aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt. His byline has appeared dozens of newspapers and magazines around the world, including BusinessWeek, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the Dallas Morning News, the South China Morning Post, and the Japan Times. He began his career at dailies in Oregon and Washington.

Jul 012012


Heiress to a French seed company fortune, Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin (1902 -1969) was a whirlwind of affaires du coeur as well as publications. Among her amorous conquests: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Orson Welles, Prince Ali Khan, a Hungarian count, Duff Cooper (British ambassador to France after World War II) and André Malraux. While setting the social world on fire she also managed to write fifteen novels, five books of poetry and ghost-authored the memoirs of Coco Chanel.  Her most famous novel was Madame de, which was made into a movie by Max Ophuls called The Earrings of Madame de…, starring Charles Boyer.

Here are several bitter little poems and my translations.

— Marilyn McCabe




Fiancée aux mille détours
Que cachez-vous dans votre manche ?
Est-ce la carte d’un séjour
Où le rêve en gestes s’épanche ?
Est-ce le plan de vos revanches
Sur le vol d’un baiser vautour ?

(from L’alphabet des aveux, 1954)


Fiancée of a million deviations
what do you hide up your sleeve?
Is it a postcard
from the place where dreams are discarded?
Is it your revenge plan:
a vulture’s kiss: stolen and flown?



Fleurs promises, fleurs tenues dans tes bras,
Fleurs sorties des parenthèses d’un pas,
Qui t’apportait ces fleurs l’hiver
Saupoudrées du sable des mers ?
Sable de tes baisers, fleurs des amours fanées
Les beaux yeux sont de cendre et dans la cheminée
Un cœur enrubanné de plaintes
Brûle avec ses images saintes.

(from Fiançailles pour rire, 1939)


Flowers of promises, bouquet in your arms,
flowers fallen like the parenthesis of a footprint, no
one knows who brought the flowers winter
scattered on the shore?
Sands of your kisses, flowers of faded ardor,
their beautiful eyes are cinders and on the hearth
a heart enribboned with cries
burns with holy fire.



Les mots sont dits, les jeux sont faits
Toutes couleurs toutes mesures,
Le danger cueille son bouquet,
Aux falaises de l’aventure
Je ne reviendrai plus jamais.

Adieu chapeau de Capitaine
Adieu gais écheveaux du vent,
Astre du Nord, étoile vaine,
Un baiser est au firmament
Des jardins où je me promène.

Adieu bateaux au jour défaits,
L’heure attendue est bien venue,
L’amour me choisit mes secrets.
À la tour des peines perdues
Je ne monterai plus jamais.

(from Le Sable du sablier, 1945)


The words were said, the plays were made,
all colors, all measures,
danger picked its wild bouquet.
To the cliffs of this adventure
I will never return.

Goodbye captain’s hat.
Goodbye gay skeins of wind,
north star, vain éclat,
your kiss is in the heaven
over the garden I am lost in.

Goodbye ships of defeated days,
the waited hour is well come;
love chose me my pains.
To that widow’s-walk of sweet affliction
I will never climb again.

 — Translations by 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. She has twice been awarded New York State Council on the Arts Individual Artist grants, most recently in 2012 for the development of a video-poem.