Groceries

The next customer returned her smile. His red hair made a halo around his face. He made her think of a tall poppy. She chased that idea, tried to focus on the task at hand. She ran the cash at the supermarket. She tried to always be personable and efficient. She felt that showed best her professionalism. He had put his purchases on the conveyor belt, peanuts and other assorted nuts, chocolate bar, tortilla chips, bananas. She’d seen this before, customers buying snacks and a fruit to give themselves good conscience. She said, smiling “Quite the party you’re having”, because really, who could eat all that by themselves. She wanted to show she cared.

The customer looked at her and said slowly, meanly, “I’m not one to drown my sorry with Ben&Jerry. My lover left me, if you need to know. Not that I owe a perfect stranger an explanation for my purchases.” She had rung up his “grocery”, if you could call it that. She replied, “Nobody’s perfect,” indicating her name tag at the same time. It could be construed as an apology for her lack of discretion, but what it was is that she had taken offence at being called a perfect stranger. She resented the name tags, a pathetic gesture to personalize the interactions, when really, nobody ever bothered to say her name. Her name was Evelyn, as was proudly displayed on her tag, though everybody at home and even her friends called her “Ev”. He paid and left, without another word.

She sprayed some cleaning fluid on the little plastic window in front of the reader. She was not allowed to smoke or do her nails, not allowed to chew gum or wear perfume. The list was too long to commit to memory. She listened absent-mindedly to the music and then came ten o’clock. They dimmed the lights and turned the music off. This was a new thing – they had been primed to serve customers that were easily overwhelmed by sensory overload (she had learned the lingo to impress her relatives). Her uncles had asked what strange creatures would come out of the wood works. He was crass, but she was curious nonetheless. As soon as the lights dimmed, she saw people emerging from their cars, like zombies in the apocalypse. They staggered towards the dimmed store and suddenly she felt a bit exposed.

The crowd was quiet, subdued. She had expected a mad dash, as happened on Black Friday. She was observing the customers. They actually looked like normal people except they smiled more and talked amongst themselves, as though they now could see each other better. There was a kinship as happens during snowstorms, an acknowledged vulnerability that brought them closer. The customers took their time. They were there for real, doing their weekly grocery. The owner was walking amongst them, shaking hands and talking to them, playing the nice guy when he imposed so many rules on the cashiers. Oh, look smart, here comes a customer. She straightened and wished she had chewing gum to give herself a countenance. She missed working as a waitress sometimes, though she didn’t miss the assholes that came to the joint.

An old man came first, positively glowing. “Isn’t this marvelous? I wear hearing aids and the music and announcements just resonate in my skull. I usually dread coming here, but today was amazing.” He was gushing! She totalled his bill. She’d often seen him. Today, he’d treated himself to some goodies, probably to encourage the owner. It was good business, she thought unkindly, then chided herself. “I sound just like Uncle Bill.” She forced a smile and a nod. “I’m happy this new initiative worked for you. Is there anything more I can do for you today?” They had been prepped to sound compassionate. She would’ve liked to be an actress, had the looks and the brains, but not the cash. She swallowed a sigh. “Sure, I’ll take a winning lottery ticket.” “Good luck,” she said, kindly this time.

Behind him was a lady she knew with her strange child. He wasn’t clingy today nor “spastic.” He usually did this thing with his hands, waving them in front of his eyes, his mom looking away stoically. Today, he was looking around, almost relaxed. “How was your experience today?” she asked by herself, genuinely curious now. Tears glistened in the lady’s eyes. “Night and day. I am so grateful you’ve done this. Do you think you’ll do it again?” “If there is enough interest, we will. I’ll make sure to tell my boss. He wants to hear from all the customers.” “God bless,” added the lady as they took their bags. Now that she didn’t expect.

There was a steady stream of customers now, but no one seemed to be in a hurry. She felt as though they were travelling back in time, with actual conversations, unhurried and friendly. She realized she’d felt a bit stressed at first, but was happy now. The customers’ good mood was contagious. She didn’t see them as zombies anymore. They themselves walked straighter, no longer skulking in corners but fully inhabiting their space. She was observant, part of her training to be an actress. You had to continually research characters. The owner greeted the late comers. “We will be resuming normal operations in 15 minutes. The dimmed lights and absence of music are on purpose.” Most people knew. They had been featured on the local news and in the paper. Some were just gawkers. She blushed when she saw Uncle Billy walking in.

He was staring at the customers, with a superior grin. Nobody paid him any mind. After a few minutes, he stopped his circus and made a purchase. He stood in line at her cash, waving excitedly as though she hadn’t spotted him miles away. There was a soft announcement over the PA system. “Dear customers, in five minutes, we will turn the music and lights back on. Please make your way to the cash if you need to do so at this time. Thank you for coming today. we hope you had a positive shopping experience.” Her uncle’s presence annoyed her. She could feel his gaze on her and didn’t appreciate the interactions with the other customers fully because of it. When it was his turn, he’d bought a loaf of dark rye bread, his favourite. “I seem to have missed all the weirdos,” he said loudly. She stared him down. “They’re at my cash right now, Uncle Bill.” It was his turn to blush and fumble for his change. He slunk away. The lights came back on. She took a bow.

The Shipwreck

The sun lay prone today, eyes open, lost in thought. The winds had abated after yesterday’s fury. The water had carted long grasses from faraway shores. From the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a long-lost shipwreck. It vanished if I looked too closely, but the cries of the birds echoed the ones of the deck hands, none of them swimmers, all but one sinkers. This one hung on to a barrel for dear life. He fastened a rope around it that he tied to his waist. It was a long night, surrounded by the howling winds and the lashing waves. Morning came and he paddled to where the debris were more abundant until he crashed to shore, his barrel slowing him down now, the weight of his dead comrades.

His collapsed mass was brought to a hut by beachcombers. They tried to force a hot beverage through his salted lips. He vomited the sea, small fish, fear and terror, the howling winds and the seagulls’ laugh. They did not hold it against him. They understood his need to expunge the sea from his belly.

When he rose, his body wracked but intact, white birds detached from tree limbs, afraid at this ghostly apparition. His minders had laid out clothes for him and they hung on him as limp sails on a windless day. He stuttered to the sea’s edge, cursing his fate. He’d been too stubborn to die and he must now live on, crowded with spectres, day in, day out. He used the last of his strength to shake his fist to the heavens then went back to bed to recover some more.

The maitre d’

« No thanks, I don’t drink, » I say, putting my hand over the top of my glass. It’s a classy joint, so I don’t get the usual stink-eye. The maitre d’ (I told you it was a classy joint) offers me a Virgin Caesar, fizzy water, fruit juice. I settle on San Pellegrino, after he rattles off a bunch of choices. He brings it in a bourbon glass with a slice of lemon and a cherry for colour. My date is not impressed, clearly thinking I failed her.

She whispers, “You didn’t tell me you don’t drink.” I whisper back, “I didn’t think it mattered.” She huffs and puffs. “Well, I’m having a drink.” This simple interaction has become my personal acid test for new relationships. It exposes the insecurities and feelings of self-worth of my counterpart in subtle and obvious ways. At first, I was apologizing for my choice, explaining my motives, pretexting health issues. The truth is, I drink when I feel like it, and that has become less and less often with time.

My vis-à-vis grabs her drink and chugs it back with a vengeance. I attack my appetizer in silence. She seems to be seething. I am curious. I feel I am conducting a social experiment. The asparagus is tender. I love the taste of vegetables in season. And this chef is amazing. I am immersed in the sensations in my mouth. I glance up to ask my date if she’s happy with her choice and find her looking at me, glass in hand. She peers over her glass, “You’re not gay, are you?” (That’s a new one!) “Why would I be gay?” “You seem pretty intent on your food.” (Oh my, wait till I tell Emily about this.)

I thought I’d kept my face neutral, but the maitre d’ quickly appears at her side, concern etched on his features. “Is the appetizer not to madam’s taste?” Olivia has not eaten a bite. She dismisses him with a wave. You can almost hear the wind as she shoos him away. He floats off with a sad look, his eyes riveted to mine, sorrowful beyond words. When mom passed away, her will stipulated her three children must all be married within three years of her death before any of us may enjoy their part of the inheritance. The spouses stand to inherit half. Emily and Burton are already married, but I am stubbornly single. They have been presenting me eligible women to choose from, in the hope they can start benefitting soon from their inheritance. Of course, I can’t just marry anyone. They’d get a say in the way the fortune is spent. So I’ve been going on these dates with random women, some of whom are quite nice, others who are more “interesting.”

I look up at Olivia, fiddling with her Belgian endives, blue cheese and date. “You seem preoccupied, Olivia,” I say kindly. She rubs her toes on my shin, playing footsies under the table. The tablecloth hides the movement, but I still blush at her audacity. (What would Mother do?) I am not quick-witted. I am slow and deliberate. I am not my mother’s son as this fiasco painfully shows. Mother had warned me about vulgar ladies. The shoddily-applied lipstick was a dead giveaway. We’re just grabbing a bite before heading to the opera. I hope she won’t be disappointed. “How about we skip the music tonight?” she says, pressing her toes to make her point clear. I signal the maitre d’. He fills her glass as she smiles broadly. Minutes later, he comes to the table and whispers “An urgent call at the front desk.”

I excuse myself and follow him. The maitre d’, Burton, can tell when I’m distressed. He’s my brother after all. “What’s happening?” I explain my predicament. “I was looking forward to my evening at the opera, but she’s saying she won’t go. She wants to… you know.” I say, mortified. “What time does the opera start?” “In another hour.” “Take my place for the next 30 minutes. Ask to leave in 30. Emily will call in a replacement” It’s Emily’s restaurant, she’ll understand. We exchange uniforms. I am a bit heftier, so the uniform is tight. My suit looks better on him than on me. He’ll have more success with her. Did I mention we are twins? Nobody ever looks at the maitre d’ or sees beyond the uniform. We’ve traded places so many times in our lives, it just feels natural. Burton’s always seeing me out of a pickle. He walks back in and picks up where I left off. I clear away the plates.


I bring my impersonator the bill, adding a generous tip for fun. I can’t tell whose paying whom with what money. As always, the lines are blurred between identities as well as fortune. We have trouble drawing lines in our family and Mother’s will has made things worse. We’re always discussing, and the family now feels like a gelatinous mass in which everybody wades desperately trying to escape inertia. Burton surprises me by handing me the two opera tickets. Of course, they were in my shirt pocket which Burton ended up wearing. That was a close one. “I hear you enjoy Barber. Tonight, Vanessa is playing. It’s your luck that we are unable to make it. Please have my chauffeur come forward. We’re heading to a nightclub.” We both keep a straight face. My chauffeur has delivered a suitable replacement suit that I will change into for the opera as soon as the couple will have left the scene.

Vanessa is an obscure opera. Those are the ones I enjoy the most. It is perfect in the mood I find myself in, with endless intrigues and reversals. I feel that way about my life. Opera seems to describe me, one aria at a time. I vibrate and buzz, more than any drug could induce in me. The same cannot be said for Burton. Though extremely moral and extremely married, he considers it his duty to right a wrong. He tells me later they did go to a nightclub. Because she was looking around, he concluded she was looking for the ladies. He wanted to show her a good time and directed her to the powder room, in this club, the room with the powder i.e. cocaine. She came back sniffling and in a great mood. He had ordered champagne. “I told her I don’t drink!” “She forgave you. I said “I” didn’t drink… when I ate.” I grunt. “She loved the music, complimented me on my taste and stopped flirting with me. I invited others at the table and found her a suitable companion. I told her I had to leave but she could have my chauffeur drive her back when she was ready. The usual.”

We may be twins, but he’s the other side of the mirror, and my reputation doesn’t concern him as much as it concerns me. I’m seen as the bad boy because of his impersonations, yet I can’t manage without him. It’s Cyrano de Bergerac all over again and we all know how that ended. It wasn’t pretty. I may end up marrying loyal Mabel, whom Mother did not hold in high esteem. We’ve been to all the same schools, our families know each other, our grandfathers had a falling out after they tried to enter in partnership. Marrying her would tie our families closer than ever, which Mother did not want. I think Dad had an affair with Mabel’s mother, which would explain the antagonism. It’s a real soap opera. Maybe I should get both our DNA tested discreetly to ensure we’re not half-siblings. That would explain the attraction and the prohibition. Emily suggested I look into online dating sites. She said it in jest, but she may have a point. I am running out of suitable candidates and I am loathe to submit Mabel to the indignity of a DNA test. What if she were our half-sister? Then she should inherit too. My head spins. We only need to avoid procreating so we don’t inbreed.


I need to get this settled. I feel as out of place as an olive in a glass of beer. I move slowly, with the grace of an ocean liner, dignified and sturdy, ancient, classic. Two years have passed and time is running out. Emily and Burt don’t want to be cheated out of their inheritance. The three of us meet to discuss the issue. We bat around some ideas, a ball – I don’t dance – the Internet, I tried with no success. We’ve gone through our relations, distant cousins, younger women. None of the ideas please me until Emily lobs the tennis idea. I happen to love tennis. Emily will propose a tournament for eligible female bachelors. The cup they are competing for is my hand. At the end of the tournament, I will declare the winner. I fancy myself a good judge of character and sports to me are a great way to reveal character. In my view, mental toughness is what distinguishes the best players from the fray.

The tournament attracts thirty candidates, some unlikely, but I am willing to entertain them all. They know what is at stake and are fighting for my attention and affection. I watch every game, and take notes. The sore losers, the bad-tempered, the mild mannered, the poor players, the whiners, they all get a rating. I decide who makes it to the next round. In a game, sometimes both adversaries advance. Some get eliminated in the first round. It is exhilarating. I now have eight potential mates, all equally interesting. Some of the ladies who have been eliminated have hung around to see who the winner will be. I keep an eye on them as well. Mabel is in the rejects, which shows the high quality of the applicants. Their reactions are still interesting to me. They are all coached by their mothers, and that shows me the family dynamics as well. Every evening, I pour over my notes. It feels like a reality show. I feel omnipotent. We’re down to a quadrille. I decide to have them play double, on a whim.

It turns out to be an excellent idea. I rotate them to see how they interact. I can’t decide between Mia and Madison. They are both rated equally high tied in the top spot. We regroup and discuss strategy. At this point, Burt says to go to the one I am most physically attracted to. Emily counters that I’m looking for a life partner and that physical beauty fades, where internal beauty improves with age. I agree with Emily, but I don’t know how to proceed. I turn to her for more ideas, since she’s the one who came up with the tennis tournament. “Now you need to interview them separately. You know their temperament. They are both steadfast, tough, impassive, and display impressive sportsmanship. Now you need to know what they expect from you.” It is sound advice, as always. My twin is out of his depth, as am I. I decide not to meet them over a meal, seeing that I had so many disastrous experiences. I decide to go on a walk with Mia. We stroll on the compound and sit in the shade. We talk. I decide on Madison, almost instantly. We announce the winner.

I am asked by the mothers to explain what made the difference. I am ashamed to tell anyone, even my wife-to-be. I make up explanations. In my heart of hearts, I know it’s because Maddy is just like Mother. Strong-willed, righteous, tenacious, and so I love her and she, in turn, will love me. Both Emily and Burt rejoice. The inheritance is ours to share. Mother smiles in her grave. She will live on, through Madison’s spirit if we don’t have children. It is the perfect choice.

Curtain

The artist had stipulated in his will that he wanted to be cremated, alongside his paintings. Thierry was 50 at the time, very much in demand, but very picky as to who his art would go to. He started getting very concerned that his art would end up in the wrong hands, little bits of his soul scattered around the globe. His views on death were tinged by his upbringing. He rejected the doctrine he was inculcated purgatory, heaven and hell and conceived his own rendition, as unique as his art. He felt that what he created should die with him, and to that effect, he started buying back his art, pushing the prices up.

Unwittingly, by creating scarcity, Thierry became unable to afford what he created, yet could not help creating more. His agent begged him to let him place his paintings, so that he could still generate revenue and keep on living. He arranged for the art pieces to be on long-term loans, with a proviso that they should be burned within 50 years of his death. Privately, he saw a bonfire, the patrons creating a mega-event by choosing to all act on the same day. He would have liked to choreograph up to the last details, ascribe meaning to the proceedings, crunch numbers to make them relevant and help his soul find the rest he aspired to. In that period, his art was minimalist. Thierry spent hours staring at a carefully prepared canvas on which he had dutifully applied a thick coat of white. In his mind’s eye, he view carnage on the snow, a battle between forces, a broken tension. After hours, nay, days of staring, he dotted the landscape with large swaths of blood. He made it snow to cover them up, their unsettling presence made known by the pinkish hue, a half-blanketed empty cartridge barely visible, fat vultures sitting on forlorn branches.

They were a hit, of course. The art critics had a field day, analyzing the deleterious effects of modernity on Mother Nature. He was haunted, and it matched the day’s zeitgeist. He went into fits of sleep, interspersed with bursts of activities, the white canvas giving way to monochromes. He painted horrific scenes from the nightmares his mind brought to life. And then he covered the whole thing with thick black paint and called the piece “Night.” The piece was to be seen under a special light that revealed the gruesome shapes beneath. Again, collectors all wanted a piece of him, and it tore at him when he relented. Even at the outrageous prices he charged, Thierry still felt robbed, as though no money could soothe the pain he felt.

He died, of course, as we all do. Everyone knew of the will and art critics took his demands seriously. By that time, he had asked that his body be preserved and burned at the same time as his oeuvre. He had painstakingly catalogued all the pieces, with owner and known addresses so that his wishes could be carried out. He wrote that his soul would know no peace until all of him was together again and disappeared on the same day. Before the time came, however, war broke out. It was a long war, and very damaging, as wars tend to be. Rich houses were not protected, art was looted and defaced, his body abandoned when its protectors flee or were killed. The coffin in which his body lay had been forced to see if it contained treasures and left open when the looters saw there was nothing but a corpse. Bombardments shred the roof and from the box he could finally see the sky. Buzzards came to feed. There was no blood. Snow fell. Night fell. Curtain.

The Lilliputians

He’d fallen in love with a dog walker. Actually, he now knew the four dogs were her own, crowding her tiny apartment. When he first came in, the little dogs swarmed his feet, interacting with them as though with their own kind, sniffing and prodding and nipping. She stopped them in time when Jacko made as though to urinate on his socked foot. “Jacko, not in the house,” Lorena said sternly. He would have preferred “Not on Regan’s foot” but he supposed general rules were easier to enforce. He recognized he had a lot to learn, starting with avoiding stomping on dogs. They always seemed to be underfoot, and he bobbed and weaved his way to the kitchen, Bordeaux in hand.

It wasn’t the grand entrance he’d rehearsed, the effortless funky walk that would make her swoon. He pretty much stumbled into the apartment and into her arms. She made a joke of it, a little alarmed that he would crunch one of dogs underfoot. They laughed uneasily; the setting was not what he expected. He sat down on the sofa while she arranged in a vase the flowers he’d brought. The dogs snuggled against him, one unnervingly laying down on the back of the sofa where he had thought he’d rest his head. He ended up leaning forward, which he reasoned made him looked interested. He’d read about posture for interviews. Leaning forward was good. He relaxed into it, tried to stop his Turbo-charged mind running from him. Lorena brought him some Orangina, a very tame drink that he thankfully held. He didn’t want to pet the dogs. He didn’t like the smell of them.

She took place beside him, shooed the dogs away to be close to him. His magnetic charm was working. They clinked glasses and chatted about the book that had brought them together. It was on the table, a grand epic set in Hong Kong. The book was turned upside down, open at the page where she was at. He winced. Seeing the book pinned down on the table, quartered almost, was painful. He retrieved a business card from his pocket, slid it between the pages and righted the book apologetically. It was her turn to blush and stumble, and they stayed in an awkward silence, looking at each other over the rim of their glasses. He started a joke, got into it, started talking excitedly waving his hands about. Jacko growled. “Jacko, no. Regan is a Friend. Friend.” She sat closer, her face almost touching his, looking intently at the dog. He turned, intending to give her a friendly peck on the cheek, but she was turning to apologize, and they kissed on the lips. Jacko got the message. Regan was in.

After that, dinner was a blur, and they made their way to bed. He hadn’t intended to be sharing those moments with all those eyes staring at him, the dogs jumping up, nestling in the crook of her arm, on his feet, on the side where he intended to lie down. It was awkward for him, but Lorena was quite used to sharing and moved them about lovingly. They talked into the night, that time that is so favourable to confidences. They couldn’t snuggle easily. He felt like the book, the sheets stretched taut by the weight of the dogs. He was pinned in place and feeling a little claustrophobic. He hardly slept at all. She was up early. “Did you sleep well?” “Hardly a wink.” “Nap a bit while I walk them. I’ll take my time and then we’ll have breakfast.” She got up to prepare and the dogs started following her around, like the sweep of a long dress swooshing all around her feet. He could hear the patter of their nails on the floor and feel their excitement growing until the door thankfully shut and the lock bolted.

He fell into a deep slumber, peopled with fantastical dreams taking place on a barge. He felt the motion of the boat, heard the seagulls, woke up to the smell of coffee. He tried to sneak up on her, to see her vulnerable in the naked light, but he stepped on a dog, who started them all yapping and circling him, the intruder. “Hello, Sleepyhead,” she said with a kiss. “I’m warming up some croissants. It’s a lovely day. I thought we could eat out on the balcony?” She had cleared the small table from the plants that usually lived there. He felt he was displacing everything, taking up more room than he ought to, but that was only his perception. He could tell Lorena welcomed him easily in her space, the awkwardness of the previous evening replaced by a new complicity. He gave Jacko a piece of croissant to seal the deal.   

Knock, knock

Pain knocks at the door, but he knows better than to let it in. He focuses on his video games, turning a deaf ear to the steady, patient knocks. He gets up and grabs another bottle. Pain and Fear are chatting in a corner, not paying attention to him. He didn’t see the doorknob turn, the door open, but he now senses a presence, feels a shimmering in his bones. They slipped in while his guard was down.

The booze does the trick and knocks him cold, the dull headache competing with the emotional pain. He hates that they broke up. He looks around at the absence of her, the no cosmetics taking up all the space counter in the washroom, the tidy kitchen with no ongoing project, the empty bedroom without her piles of clothes on chairs, the floor, the dresser. Her half of the bed is barely messed up. He didn’t have the heart to sprawl. He was too wasted anyway. He ended up sleeping in the position he was in when he crashed.

It’s been two days. He hasn’t washed nor eaten much. There is no incentive to shave or to look presentable. He’s not going anywhere. He can outlive the pain, trick it until it lashes out at inappropriate moments, at a distracted cashier, or a hapless driver. He excels at avoidance and denial. He feels no pain and dislikes those tears that flow unbidden. He paints his eyes with heavy mascara, dons leather and spikes his hair. He’s put on his armour, makes sure no one will try to approach him. Ricki, his white rat, is on a leash and comfortably roams on his shoulders. People turn to watch him as he attacks the pavement. He’ll go to Karl’s for a piercing.

He knocks on Karl’s metal door. He lives in a bunker-like apartment. “Karl!” he shouts. There’s screamo on. He lets himself in. Bodies are strewn in the gloom. A hand offers him a pill – ecstasy, for sure. He pops it with a hint of misgiving. He’s already hard-wired. He gropes his way until he finds the kitchen. There is Karl, working on a client. He’s focused on enlarging a pierced earlobe. They have a common bourgeois background and expectations. For sure, he would’ve gone on to be a surgeon without his detour to the underworld. He’s got nerves of steel. Ducky waits his turn. He’s relaxing now. He’ll ask for his left eyebrow since there is still room. He knows the drill to keep it clean. He’s never had an infection. Karl talks non-stop, like a runaway horse, or better yet like one of those cattle auctioneers. He chuckles to himself.

First Skate

Mark was a slow-moving, lumbering man. People often compared him to a bear. He didn’t have a bear’s ferocity, nor speed when he ran. At least, I assume not, because I only saw him moving at one speed: slowly. He had a great smile, an insufferable accent, and loved to hear himself speak. Come winter, he always walked around with a pair of skates over his shoulder. Manolito was a newcomer to the country and my classmate. I had gotten new skates last year. He was small so I had him try on my old ones. With an extra pair of woolen socks, they fit perfectly. I had decided to teach him how to skate and Mark joined us when he saw them hanging by their long laces on our shoulders.

“Headed for the pond?” “Yes, have you been yet this year?” “No, I thought I might have a look.” We walked together, after introductions, Mark trailing with his shuffling gait, us boys scampering on ahead, a little excitement pulling us all along. The trail was packed by other eager feet. We heard the metallic sound of blades hitting the ice. There was not much sound apart from the scraping, other than the occasional scream and thump from falls, followed by murmurs when kids were pulling other kids up. We turned a bend and saw the pond. It was well attended with Billy and Joe and Peter and others I didn’t recognize at first glance. We dropped down onto the snow and took our boots off. Mark arrived and looked around with a smile. He was tall. If he sat, he might not be able to stand back up. He leaned against a tree and proceeded to change into his skates.

Manolito and I were done fast. I helped Manolito lace the skates tight and saw his surprise when I pulled him up. He was unnaturally tall on the blades and ready to topple back in the snow. I guided him to the edge, walking slowly. He had put both his hands on my shoulders to steady himself. I descended upon the pond and turned around to face him. “Slowly,” I advised. He put one wobbly foot on the hard surface, then another. From the corner of my eye, I could see Mark detaching himself from the lamppost and see his labored breath condensed in front of his mouth. It was probably everybody’s first time of the season. The ice was pockmarked. Here and there tall grasses broke through the surface and tripped the unsuspecting skaters. “This way, Manolito.” Bravely, he started dragging his feet, trying to walk with those contraptions.

“Glide,” I said unhelpfully, as I strode away. The new skates were amazing, sturdier and the right size. My feet were happy, I could wiggle my toes. I soon forgot about Manolito as I saw Tom and his sister Kate , Anthony and Peter, and joined them to compare skates and stories. With a pang, I realized I’d forgotten about Manolito. Mark was talking to him, with large arm movements. He put his arm out and Manolito took hold of it. Mark started dragging Manolito around. He was so graceful, even with this weight attached to his arm. For his part, Manolito’s job was to stay upright and watch the scenery. Mark was skating effortlessly, away from the rough edges to give poor Manolito a chance to keep his balance. The speed helped and Mark was talking non-stop.

Cautiously, Manolito tried to imitate him. He was scrawny but emboldened by Mark’s steady arm. He kept losing his balance, the skates giving out under his feet and pulling him forward as his head drew an arc back towards the ice, but his grip was good and his tottering gave way to a more stoic stance. They were a sight to see, Mark gliding away, followed by what looked like his tree. As Manolito started to relax, he increased his speed, and soon we were watching them circling us, like a circus act, thinking that at any moment poor Manolito would come hurtling towards one of us like a bowling ball and topple us down like pins. We could hear Mark talking and soon, still holding Manolito, he turned and started skating backwards effortlessly, all the while holding Manolito’s gaze on his own. Manolito started gliding too, imitating Mark’s long strides. I don’t know who started clapping, but pretty soon a rhythmic clapping accompanied them, muffled mitten sounds, then stomping blades and chanting. We had retreated to the edges, leaving the nicer, smoother part of the pond to the pair.

Mark said something and sent Manolito sailing in the air. The chanting stopped as we saw his body suspended mid-air, Manolito’s exhilarated face turned to the sky before pummeling back to the ice. But Mark caught him effortlessly and deposited him on the pond, before pushing him off in a straight line. He hadn’t yet learned to stop and so Tom came to the rescue and grabbed his elbow before he barrelled into someone. He expertly turned him around and started skating with him in the other direction. Kate took him off his hands. She was the same size as Manolito and their strides were equal. One by one, kids accompanied him back and forth, to the chanting and clapping of the others. He was grinning so much we thought his face would forever stay that way, frozen in perpetual glee. The light was falling and the cold was getting fierce. Reluctantly, we brought Manolito back to the edge and sat him down in the snow. His eyes were lighting up the small area where he sat. Kate helped him out of his skates and into his boots. When he stood, he looked as unsteady as when he first put on his skates and we ribbed him gently.

All the kids were now shod again and about to leave when we looked back once more at the deserted pond. Mark’s silhouette could still be seen gliding in furious circles, doing arabesques and jumps, no longer a lumbering bear, oblivious to the dwindling light, happiness lighting the way.

House For Sale

The real estate agent had created a video which started with an aerial view of the farmhouse. The drone came in low, through the cornfield, in a scene reminiscent of a thriller movie. He could call it “Murder in the Maize” or something.  He downloaded the video to add his own creepy music. He could ask for a private viewing, perhaps entice the owners to let him film on the property for a few days. He’d done it before when the owners had already moved on and lost their attachment to the house. He’d filmed period pieces, complete with period costumes. It felt homemade, but the acting was good. He used young actors who were willing to work for peanuts to have a chance to see their names when the credits rolled. His wife Jo-Ann was a prolific writer who rote scripts. They were a great team. He scouted the locations and arranged for the film crew. Together, they ran auditions. He took care of the finances and she assisted the director, having no patience with actors and their egos. She was strictly interested in making her ideas come alive.

They usually wrapped the gig in a few days. The results weren’t masterpieces, but then that wasn’t the goal. The films were shorts, meant to showcase new talents. Against different backdrops, the young actors could present a decent portfolio, creating the illusion they’d starred in a few roles. Jo-Ann wrote all genres, western, comedy and drama, thriller and romance, whatever the house was fit for, fifteen minutes tops. In rare cases, they used two locations. When they first started, the shoots were improvised. They were in cahoots with a real estate agent and filmed for a day, without the house owner’s knowledge. The agent knew which houses were empty. They were soon found out, when friends of the owners recognized the house in the shorts and alerted them. Some had been flattered. If they liked the short, they were good sports about it. They’d had to refine their approach now that their real estate friend’s license had been revoked. They refrained from releasing the short until after the deal had been closed but before the new owners took possession. The window could be small, but they were used to working quickly. Jo-Ann cut and spliced the film to match their joint vision.

Though they’d been collaborating for years, they still managed to make things fresh. Sure, the stories had become a bit formulaic, but the actors were given liberty to infuse the movie with their particular brand of craziness. Nowadays, they did not post the short. It was strictly used as promotional material by the actors. Of course, Aaron had all the original footage. You never knew when it could come in handy. He hid behind a numbered company, and targeted cheaper houses or isolated ones where the owner was less likely to sue. He loved the thrill of creating a short in a few days and working under pressure. For the newbies, it was a good experience, a fun one he hoped. They had managed to buy one of the houses to use as a permanent set. They had more elaborate scripts that the young actors were encouraged to learn and play out. The participants paid good money for the experience, which financed their other ventures. For those occasions, they catered meals to give the impression of a real movie. If you paid extra, you had the use of a trailer as though you were a star.

It was the equivalent of a vanity book, for the film industry. The idea took off and pretty soon there were spin-offs for bachelor and bachelorette parties, then, more simply, parties. The protagonists were not actors, nor would-be actors. Aaron and Jo-Ann were purists, and they did not condone the spin-offs. They clamoured they were the originals, but they fell out of favour, with more expensive outfits competing in the field. The competition grew tough. Houses could no longer be rented for a song. The gig was up, the spin-offs had pissed in the pool and now everybody was swimming in it. Jo-Ann and Aaron should have gotten out then. They’d made their money. But they were adamant to prove everybody wrong. They ruined themselves in fruitless legal action alleging plagiarism. Even then, they could have settled out of court. In the end, they lost it all. Ironically, a competitor did a very good short on the industry and their role in it. They regained a bit of dignity, of former glory, and retired with less bitterness.

***

Aaron has started a new career selling houses. He spends a lot of time spinning yarns about his past exploits. His advertisement shows his face half hidden behind an old movie camera. He gives autographs to his clients. Jo-Ann now has a syndicated column giving business advice and admonitions. They moved after the disastrous verdict that wiped them out. They got tired of people slowing by the house and pointing or taking selfies. Some were bold enough to ring the doorbell and pester them with questions. They now live in an undisclosed location. Their neighbours shield them from unwelcome attention, giving frivolous directions to unwanted guests.  In this way, the small town protects its celebrities and ensures a steady stream of visitors.

Pothole

Gail loved her life in the almost countryside, the gravel driveways and lush greenery. She was not as keen on the neighbours who drove too fast by the house. Her two girls played by the side of road, rode their bicycles, chased the dog. Gail had repeatedly asked the municipality for a speed bump or a traffic sign, but to no avail. She decided to take matters in his own hands.

She was a design artist by trade, had studied Fine Arts. She decided her best bet would be to create the illusion of obstacles. It was spring. Potholes seemed in order. Using the actual potholes as a starting point, Gail took pictures of them at different times of the day, in sunny and cloudy weather. She did not bother to capture their likeness under the rain, since the girls were seldom out in foul weather, and people were more cautious in bad weather.

One day, she came out with her paints and brushes and proceeded to create first her first trompe-l’oeil. Her project included three potholes, strategically placed to take advantage of the existing ones. The drivers would not know which were true and would need to slow down because of the uncertainty. She did one the first day, brushing the pavement to clean the surface, positioning her garden kneeling pad to protect her knee. Gail wore an orange vest and a sun hat and had positioned a few traffic cones to secure the area. The first car slowed down, waited, then went around. Amanda was driving the second car that went by. She rolled down the window, “What are you up to?” “Protecting the kids,” she answered laconically. Amanda parked her car in her driveway and took the groceries in. A few minutes later, she came by on foot, holding two popsicles. “Break?” she offered.

Gail got up, surveying her work with a critical eye. She took the orange popsicle, her favorite flavour, and took a few steps back. Two neighbourhood kids came by to look, one on his bicycle, the other on a skateboard. They looked at the paintbrushes, tilted their heads. “What are you doing?” “It’s a safety initiative,” she replied. “What does that mean?” “I’m painting things on the road to make people slow down.” He was rocking his bike back and forth, nervously. He couldn’t wrap his mind around it. “Do you think it will work?” “I don’t know, it’s an experiment.” “Will you change it over time? Add debris or sand, or pebbles?” “That’s a good idea. I haven’t thought this far ahead.” The boy who had been quiet spoke up. “You could paint water and the reflection of the tree there.” He pointed at a maple. Then the kids would want to splash around and they’d be all surprised when nothing came out.” She smiled. She had eaten the popsicle quickly, because of the heat, and was ready to go back to work. “Thanks for the ideas, guys.”

She knelt down and finished the painting. The boys stood watching and grunted their appreciation when she sat back on her heels, her work done. “When can we ride over it?” “Give it an hour to dry. I’ll remove the cones when it’s ready.” They rode off. When she took the cones away, they came racing down the street only to avoid the hole at the last minute, hopping over it. She clapped. They clapped back. “It looks real,” the cyclist said. “Hard to tell the difference,” opined the skateboarder. The three of them got out of the way. A car was coming. The driver slowed down to avoid the pothole. High fives all around. She waited a few days and painted a second one. She was more daring, and made it bigger, adding cracks in the asphalt around it. There weren’t many people around during the day. She felt safe.

The residents grumbled about the state of the street. Some took side streets, others complained to the municipality. Soon, a municipal truck came and a workman came out with an orange spray can. He circled the offending potholes, including the trompe l’oeils. Gail came out. “Excuse me, sir? Please, these are not real.” He stopped, annoyed. “Do you mind if I take a few pictures of you with the potholes?” “What for?” “To send to your superior.” “Go ahead.” “May I have their name?” He handed her a card on the back of which he scribbled the name and email address she required. The kids were back, listening, one on his bicycle, his friend on his skateboard. “You can’t put asphalt over this, it’s already flat. Look.” She walked over it. He raised an eyebrow and dipped his toe. Hard surface. “Well, I’ll be.” He crouched and passed a hand over the “hole”. “Did you do that?” “Yes, I called the city and they wouldn’t install a speed bump. The drivers weren’t paying attention to the speed limits posted. There are a lot of kids in the neighborhood.” She pointed to the boys. The man smiled. “Can you paint some in my street? I’ve forbidden my kids to ride their bikes at certain times. It’s just nuts.” “I’ll see what I can do for you,” he added. It was his turn to take down her coordinates.

That evening, the phone rang. A local journalist wanted to write a story on her “installation”. Would she be willing to be interviewed? After the article came out, her services were in high demand. Her art was very realistic. She started making larger pieces, speed bumps and collision debris. At first, she charged a nominal fee, to cover her material, but as demand grew, she started charging more. It was still cheaper than getting a crew to do the work and it tricked people into paying attention. Her own city hired her part time as a consultant, recognizing her efforts in making the streets safer.

The fakes had to be labeled, so the guys filling the holes would not get fooled into trying to fill them. They had been ridiculed enough the first time it happened, when a video went viral on the Web.

Barbie Doll Heads

After the flood, Barbie doll heads littered the streets. I suppose they were kept in basements for the future grandkids who never came. The kids never asked for their old toys, so they sat there, unperturbed, until the great flood washed them ashore. But why just the heads? We never did find the bodies, even after poking at the soaked leaves with long sticks. I collected them, and aligned them on the windowsill, facing the street, smiling at the passersby.

I volunteered when a freak tornado hit the town next door. I went to sift through debris looking for important papers, jewellery, valuables, heirloom. Here again, the doll heads were ubiquitous. They were considered refuse, and I was allowed to pocket them. They made unseemly bumps in my crotch and I noticed quite a few smirks, but nobody called me up on them. I labelled those carefully, in case someone came looking for them. Again, where were the bodies? I was growing restless with all those detached heads. This time, rooves were ripped from houses and children’s bedrooms’ walls. I suppose the barbie dolls came from attics. Those houses were built high on rocks, with nary a basement to their name.

I guess intact dolls exist. They are cherished and held closely to children’s hearts when on the move. My bodyless specimens speak of older brothers, of dark arts, of tears and vengeance. My windowsill overflows. I build an altar, white heads, long blond hair, reminiscent of white slave trade. They’re all smiling of course. That’s the fetish. I come across one or two brown-haired dolls, colours faded. I touch them up, so they won’t look like the ugly relative. I place them in the corners, to anchor the scene. My little menagerie is attracting attention, with a crowd of heads on both sides of the windowpane. �A<˹�T

First Cigarette

My name is Amber. They say they named me after a jewel, but I feel like an insect trapped in resin for all to see and marvel at. My limbs are stuck in this translucent matter. I cannot breathe, I cannot move. I am a thing to observe and comment on. Do Roses feel the same? Or do they have an obsession with smell? I feel inert, like a museum artefact. Amber indeed. My age is counted in millenniums. I guess that makes me an old soul. I don’t feel like one.

I’m lying on my bed, trying to see if I feel different. I’ve had my first cigarette, this rite of passage I’ve heard so much about. I realize it’s only a rite of passage if you do it publicly, affirming your right to your own body. I stole one from my father’s pack and smoked it alone, behind the shed. I had planned the whole thing carefully. My mom and I are the only non-smokers in the house. My brother smokes, but I know he counts his cigarettes, always fretting if he thinks the count is off. He doesn’t make much money and the cigarettes are a way to show that he does. He only smokes with his friends. They’re all broke and they hoard their own.

They huddle together trying to look relaxed. Smoking gives them something to do with their hands as they mill about, strategically positioned to see the girls go by. Of course, they look like a mob, and no self-respecting girl would stop and talk to them. When one does, the boys eagerly and nonchalantly offer her a cigarette, a light, a laugh. Their little cluster expands to integrate the newcomer. They try real hard to look cooler, they swagger. They become tense and revert to stress behaviour. D. becomes a smooth talker, V. turns quiet, F. laughs at any joke.

I wanted my first cigarette to be a private ceremony. I didn’t want the public accolade, the clap on the back when I choked, the laughs, the feeling of belonging. I know it’s a filthy habit, I know it’s bad for your health. My brother is the first to tell me not to start, my sister hides her own, my mother will bum a cigarette from my dad once in a while. I’ve come of age. I can feel all eyes on me. She’s fourteen and she doesn’t smoke. What does that say about me, about them? They think I’m stand-offish and that I judge them. They don’t know that I’m curious about it, like anybody else.

It turns out the hardest part of smoking is finding a quiet spot. There is no privacy in my life. The cigarette smells so you’re easy to spot. If you smoke at night, others will see the lighted tip. Neighbours are everywhere, cigarettes are counted, all my time is accounted for. The experience itself is disappointing. I didn’t feel the resin melt from the unnatural heat I inhaled. I didn’t feel relaxed, my limbs suddenly loose and limber instead of stuck in the yellow-brown tinge. I feel proud that I didn’t cough. I realized my mistake with my first puff. Dad’s a long-time smoker; his cigarettes are very strong. I still don’t know what he feels from the inside when he smokes. I was too intent on examining my own experience at the time.

Nothing unravelled, no revelation made itself known to me. I feel I’ve been cheated. All this preparation only to uncover the lie: smoking has nothing to do with cigarettes. It’s all about what you do with it. I’ve perverted the act. Smoking is a way to be seen in the world. I realize as well that by smoking by myself, I’ve robbed my family of the satisfaction mingled with disappointment that they would have felt. I would have finally been welcomed to the fold, though they would have thought a little less of me. I’m the brainy one. They hope and fear I will hold off. They want me to be successful but their way to success involves a tight social network. Mom worries about my lack of friends or social graces. They discuss, in my face, the fact that I don’t seem interested in boys. Mom defends me. I’m still a rare specimen under glass.

I won’t write any of this in my journal. I’m pretty sure one or the other reads it. I write poetry that means nothing to me, copy down quotes that move me but I don’t share anything personal. It strikes me that writing would be my cigarette, my stamp on the world, my claim to fame. The idea lights me up, infuses me with new energy. Like a cigarette, it is banal, seductive, addictive. I can make it uniquely mine. I resolve to buy a typewriter. I do odd jobs to earn a bit of money, all that without a goal, because I am expected to babysit and to earn money. Mom offers my time to babysit. I comply because I usually have nothing planned anyway. The kids are fine, I bring homework or a book and then walk myself home with a few dollars in hand. I am part of the economy.

But now I have a goal. Will I smoke as I type? Still not for me. It doesn’t add to the mystique of the act. Writing is complete in itself. I fell a tingling in my limbs, the resin going soft. Watch me hatch.

Open Mic

You come for the magic, when time stands still as you bare your soul. Your soul does not always want baring and sometimes you sing only with his voice, and that is fine, but not magical. When your soul is ready to open up, lovelier than a flower, you transport your audience to the magical place where music takes you. It’s unique, to be sure, as your soul is unique to you. Music takes you to this moment where your soul vibrates and unleashes dreams and visions and emotions that make you forget that other reality in which you spend your days.

It is quite a feat, and you approach the moment with gravitas, well aware of the responsibility on your shoulders. It is with some trepidation that you plug in your guitar. You’re nervous and start playing without introduction. The first song is just a greeting. You get acquainted with that night’s crowd and see how they respond. You’ve prepared four songs, and will sing three according to a complex calculation of nerves and audience and soul. The first one is a no-brainer “I want you to want me”. It’s self-explanatory, and gets people swaying in their chairs, even if they don’t know it. They’re an older crowd, they haven’t grown up with it. Still, they’re game and enthusiastic. You relax into it. You introduce your next song, and yourself, “Joe” with a bit more confidence. We’re only doing guitar here, maybe a bass or harmonica to accompany, and voice, of course.

You sing “I’m Calling You” from Bagdad Café which has always been your favourite, with its haunting lyrics. It’s not really country music but it speaks of the desert and longing. The crowd is less rowdy, more reflexive. Someone joins you and replaces the saxophone part with his harmonica to pinch people’s emotional chords. You end your set with King’s “It’s Too Late”, a crowd favourite. You’re looking for accolades. Your soul was skittish tonight, and stayed hidden. Still, you got something of a rush when everybody joined in the chorus, belting “But it’s too late, baby now, it’s too late”. They’re all sensitive and prone to the blues. They get it.

You quickly exit to the back of the restaurant, where the guy from the previous act is still steadying his nerves. There’s a pack of cigarettes out there. It’s nobody’s, just medicine. You inhale, exhale, and the trembling subsides. You don’t talk. It’s easier that way to find your center again. You come back in, not having exchanged a word with your compadre. You slip your guitar in its case. How you recognize the case is anybody’s guess. They’re all lined in the corridor jostling for top spot, black and innocent-looking. Some of these babies enclose the finest specimens. Yours is the best you can afford and it does a decent job. You convince yourself that the instrument is not important, yet you still eye the expensive ones.

Another musician has been playing and you sit down with a beer to enjoy the rest of the evening now that you’ve done your share. A lucky performer gets a high five, a couple gets up to dance near the end of the evening. They’re mostly white-haired, the ones with even teeth sporting dentures, the women singing with their husbands, shooting them adoring looks to boost their confidence. The voices are strong, lyrics scrolling off iPads, or printed neatly on paper. Tonight, old folks’ ailments are gone. The place is packed in the smell of memories and the vibes of youth. It’s already 10 o’clock. Time to head home…

Something Like Peace

pelted by a rain of bullets
buzzing from the planes’ bellies
I lie in the ditch

carriages and bikes,
lone dolls and shoes
litter the road
where a moment ago
a people fled

a distant rumble is heard
a beating drumbeat
from anxious clouds

suddenly the sun is out
like a curious child parting curtains
to survey the scene below

something like peace
descends on us

the sky is back to being the sky
the planes a distant memory
except for the cries for help
from writhing bodies

I offer my strength to the injured
my health to the dying
my hand to the orphaned child

Apollo

Betty points out the large cans holding up their sofa before I have time to comment. “My dad says they’re stronger than regular legs. He’s an artist.” I look at the cans. The metal has been painted a bright red. I wonder if they are empty or full. I tap tentatively but I can’t be sure because of the weight of the sofa on them. They sound full. I turn my head away and we keep on visiting. It’s the first time I’m invited over to play, and play is done in the basement in this house. She shows me the laundry room and the chute – a great hiding place. “I was hiding there once, and Mom dropped bedsheets on my head.” We guffaw.

“This is a closet.” She opens the door. It’s a closet. It’s got winter clothes and smells of wood. “It’s made of cedar to keep the bugs away. The bugs don’t like cedar.” I think of our cedar hedge and vow to check it for bugs. “This is the mud room.” She opens the door to it. It’s not true. There is no mud there. I was fully expecting long smoking pipes and a low entrance, some sort of ritual Indian room with tobacco offerings in a pouch. I’m disappointed. There are pegs to hang clothes, a flannel shirt, galoshes, a pair of gardening gloves. I shuffle my feet, a little angrily. She takes my hand and points to a door further down. “This one leads to the garage. Never, never go there by yourself!” She opens it halfway and I peer out. It smells of oil and gasoline. It’s clean. There’s a well-organized workshop and room for a car. Her mom has gone out to do the groceries. Her dad is in his home office downstairs behind the next door we open.

“Hi, girls! You’re going to be playing quietly here?” We nod. Even I can tell he’s young, with a beard that resists growing. He’s wearing a ponytail, like a girl, except it’s not tied with a coloured elastic but with a virile leather lace. His teeth are crooked, his eyes are kind. He is very thin. Mom talks of starving artists. I ask “Are you starving?” pointing at his bony forearm. He answers with a shrug “I’m an artist.” I shrug gravely, as though it says it all. I can’t tear my eyes from the bear skin on the floor. The eyes are glass, that much is clear. I crouch and run my hand on the coarse fur. The nose is leathery, the teeth are crooked. I bring my nose to the pelt. I was expecting a musky smell, but it smells… dry.

We go back to the room with the sofa. “What do you want to do?” asks Betty. I look around the room.  There is an encyclopedia, records, an earth globe and a smaller one. It’s not really a playroom. “What’s that?” I ask. “The moon.” I grab the smaller metal sphere. It has crater drawings with names and dates. “Do you want to play astronaut?” She nods enthusiastically and we play Mission control. We safely land rocket after rocket, American, Russian, Indian, French, Italian. We have the crews eat with each other and speak with their hands as they float and play swim in zero gravity. Eventually, Betty’s mom comes down to wash a load. “Betty, you put it to dry when it’s ready, all right?”

In time, we transfer the wet clothes to the dryer. Betty climbs on a footstool and starts the dryer. We play some more. Her father comes out of his study, stretching. “You’re still playing,” he remarks. He sits on the sofa and listens to us awhile. Betty’s mom comes down to retrieve the wash. She’s brought carrot and celery sticks. “They’re astronauts!” says the father with pride. We look at Betty’s mom. She’s beaming. “Do you want to play too?” I ask hopefully. “How does it work?” she asks. “You can be bringing the food. It will be floating and we’ll try and eat it.” Betty’s father is dangling carrots in front of our noses as we move our limbs in slow motion, as though under water.

The phone rings and the spell is broken. “Time to head home,” says the mother. “Mission accomplished,” I reply as I slowly take the stairs.

Hubby

It was one of ’em days when the sky won’t decide whether it will cry. And when it does, it sobs in right downpours it does. And the winds a whippin’ the drops around. For me, imma standing under this mighty oak cause the wind is a whippin one way but it’s keeping a dry tongue on the trees it is and that’s where Ise stands. Now I’m not saying my arms aint getting wet cause they hanging straight along my body like walking sticks leant against bark at the beginning of the woods so the next soul don’t have to go lookin’. My body’s pretty dry though like Imma part of that mighty oak I am. And so I wait and looks. The fields a golden under the roiling clouds not the kind you count before falling asleep, not white and puffy. I can hardly sleep on account I got a nervous dog. Him and me so tight, when he twitch, I wake up. He twitch a lot on account of all the mosquitoes this year. Today’s good cause of the wind. It’s cooler and the mosquitoes are hibernatin. So there aint no twitchin happenin but I aint sleeping standing up so there you have it. My dog’s at my feet too keep’em toasty. He’s nice and happy with his nose to the wind, takin on the news with a good sniffin. Aint nothin much to do when it’s rainin. No point in walkin home and getting sick so Ise watch the branches swirl about and the tree sigh and the birds keep quiet. I don’t mind a bit o contemplatin mysself not churchywise o anything you know. Just Mother Nature havin a tantrum. Makes me feel good about my own. All those hi falutin folks whisperin in my back when Ma come in with a black eye in church. She deserve it or she wouldn’t get it. A man’s allowed to be in a foul mood same as a missus and that’s just how things go. Winds letting up now, tears all spent. I reckon I’ll get on my way and see about picking some pretty daisies from the field. The missus will be happy to have such a thoughtful husband. Maybe she be in a forgivin mood and we can lay together. Come on, Buddy, be smart about it. Don’t have to say nothin on account of our bond but I like the sound of my own voice I do. ����

Alexa

– Alexa, what time is it?

The little girl turns her head and smiles. She points at the clock and jiggles her pudgy arms, letting out a whoop that covers Alexa’s answer. Dad frowns and repeats. Caroline, his 7-month old, listens to the voice answer the question in a soft, yielding tone.

“We still have time,” says his wife, pouring coffee. “Tiiiiime, is on our side, yes it is!” he sings back. “That’s a bad imitation of Jagger” she hollers. Baby Caroline is making happy sounds.

– Ah, that’s because I’m not imitating Jagger. Too vulgar for me, with his big lips. It’s not actually a Stones’ song, you know.

– Whaaaat? You say the dumbest things!

– Alexa?

Baby Caroline shrieks and claps her hands.

– Who wrote the song “Time is on My Side?”

– “Time Is on My Side” is a song written by Jerry Ragovoy using the pseudonym “Norman Meade”, says Alexa, in a definite tone.

“Never heard of him,” mumbles the wife as he gloats. Baby Caroline is looking from Mom to Dad and over to the left where Alexa’s voice originated. Her intelligent gaze takes it all in.

– Alexa, what’s the weather like today?

Baby Caroline is following the exchange, putting down the toy she was holding.

– Cloudy, with a 30% chance of rain.

– I’ll risk it and bring my clubs. Don’t wait up. I’ll let you know if my plans change.

– Alexa? calls the wife as Caroline crawls over. “I swear, Caroline thinks we’re talking to her. Did you notice her reaction every time we say “Alexa”?

Dad glances at Caroline, big brown eyes and half smile. “Oh, you pretty thing” he hums, with a wink at his wife. “Bowie” she mouths back. “Alexa,” he tries. Caroline looks up at him with inquiring eyes. “My God, I think you’re right.” She starts crawling to him. “Say her name,” he points to the baby.

– Caroline?

Caroline ignores her as they laugh guiltily. �

The Boss

“I was born to be eaten, beaten, bartered and thrown away. But I fought back every step of the way,” he recalls in his book “My fight”. Please welcome Jared Milton!”

Jared walks onto the scene, looking like a million dollars. Ach! A million, that’s pocket money. The audience eats him up. He’s got a perfect smile and perfect hair. He’s kept the deformed nose – it gives him authenticity, and bad boy looks to die for. The nose was never his best feature, cartilage is not tough enough for a man like him. Give him tooth and nail, guts and grit. His thoughts revert to clichés whenever he’s nervous. It’s his first time on national tv. He’s well aware of the millions of eyes on him.

The host welcomes him and dives straight into the book “You didn’t write this book, Jared, right?” “No Josh, as a matter of fact, it was written by a ghostwriter, based on hundreds of hours of interviews. If you’d read it, you’d know I was illiterate.” He turns to the closest camera and addresses it “That’s right kids. I can’t read or write, yet I’m a millionaire. Says something about our school system, doesn’t it?” The statement is met with hoots and laughter, some heartfelt clapping as well as a certain unease. “Yes folks, if you make friends with the right people, there is money to be made.” The host interjects “By ‘right people’ you mean the derelicts you met when you fled your foster family?” “I surely don’t mean either my family or foster families, Josh.” He uses the host’s name deliberately, looking him straight in the eye as he does so. The camera records the quiet confrontation, pans to the audience when the host breaks eye contact.

“You had a difficult childhood, yet you came out on top. What do you credit your success to?” “My good looks, of course,” he says, holding his chin up to show a ravaged profile with jutting eyebrows, broken nose and dimpled chin. He smiles winningly, his cold eyes sitting prettily under a cap of salt and pepper longish hair. “The look of Caesar, you know? Aquiline nose?” He’s managed to reframe his looks to his advantage, the audience now superimposing their picture of a triumphant Caesar over his own. They murmur amongst themselves, smugly. “I told you so,” can be heard.

The host tries to steer Jared back. “I enjoyed the pictures, but was sorry to not see any of your youth.”

– “We were poor, yeah? The closest I ever came to a camera was during my cousin’s wedding. They didn’t want me as a page, so there’s me fake-strangling one my size. I wanted to steal his clothes to be in the procession. They stopped me.” Laughter and whistling from the audience. He’s invited his lieutenants in the crowd. They’re sitting in the front row, arms crossed, sullen looks. In the wings awaits his loyal bodyguard. The watchdog is facing the audience, scanning it for signs of trouble. He wasn’t allowed to bring his weapons backstage but he’s got his fists, and those are lethal.

– Spunky fellow, you were.

– I say you want something, you go for it.

– Ah, the American way! Still, there’s the matter of the Constitution…

– Told you I’m illiterate.

The audience erupts into laughter as he looks at them, dignified.

– Did you not, as a child, re-arrange Inuit sculptures Inuktitut (he says that painfully, as though crunching through glass) as though they were performing obscene acts?

– What is obscene is you making those kinds of accusations, he says in a tight voice.

Jared glances backstage, the camera follows his gaze. Close-up on the gorilla’s set jaw and angry eyes. The tension is palpable, that of an animal ready to pounce. People look nervously behind for a guard with a tranquilizer gun. They better be quick about it.

– I meant no offense. I was just referring to a scene in the book…

– Childhood was such a long time ago…

The host looks at his cue cards, makes a show of throwing them over his shoulder.

– What would you like to discuss?

Jared turns to face the first guest, a lovely brunette, all legs, a popular singer with a hit single and sketchy past. He looks her up and down, appreciatively.

– “I’m a legs man, myself.” He extends his hand, she extends hers. He gives it a lick and winks at her. “Dee-licious,” he adds.

– You must be a wolf, she flirts. This perfume is called ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’

Like a magician, he whips out a smile, all canines glistening, and lets out a surprising howl. The audience howls back, under the host’s mock-horrified look. The hounds are off leash, a musky scent fills the air. After that, the host loses even the tiniest grasp on the interview and is left hanging limply, damp sheet left to dry but soaked by a sudden downpour. He runs a manicured hand through his thinning hair as they cut to a commercial. The makeup people run out to fix his hair, another help picks up the discarded cards, the producer whispers words of encouragement. They resume, the host focusing on the third guest as the first two exchange lascivious looks. Before the next commercial, Josh’s hand is resting proprietorially on the singer’s silky knee. The gorilla allows himself a sly grin as he relaxes. From then on, there are no surprises, he’s read the script a hundred times. The boss rules. 

Rain

The rain is pouring down the full-face helmet like tears from heaven, which is where she’ll end up if she doesn’t find a refuge soon. She’s slowed down to better handle the motorcycle in the rain. It’s her first time with this bulky one, made for trips with its unyielding saddle bags. She’s lined them with garbage bags to waterproof them and put a warm hoodie on top. She’s thinking she may change into it. Bingo! Overpass. Two other riders are already there. She signals and stops in the dry, the deafening noise abating. She considers the other two. Males, of course. They don’t seem to be traveling together.

She kicks the stand, pulls the heft of the bike up and feels it going down with a satisfying snap. She’s done the manoeuvre umpteenth times, but she’s still nervous in front of others. She’s petite, so she’s clearly female. She takes off her helmet and clips it to the side to give herself something to do as the other two watch. The younger one is fretting around his bike, tussling his hair with one hand, the other holding his helmet. The other man is stationary, just watching. She approaches them, nods.

– Hi, I am Thierry, says the young man, extending a hand she shakes. It’s bloody inconvenient all this rain. I am still far from destination and I don’t like night riding. You?

“Hi, I’m Jolene,” she lies. “I’m meeting up with my husband (she looks at her watch) in an hour or so at the Wapu Inn. Don’t know if he’s stuck under an underpass too.” She lies easily for protection. There is no husband, though there is a Wapu Inn in about an hour’s time.

They turn to the third person. He’s wearing a bandana and is eyeing them with beady eyes. His muscular forearms are crossed on his torso. He’s classic bad ass in jeans, t-shirt and jean vest. He’s dry, which means he outran the rain. He’s more savvy than the two of them put together.

– How much longer do you think it will rain? she asks.

He shrugs and looks away at the sky. He’s made himself comfortable. He’s got the best spot, close to the wall. The cars slow down to pass them and gawk. Nobody dares stop. One biker looks vulnerable, two may be a couple, three are trouble. She shivers. She has no fat to speak of. She goes to a saddle to retrieve her hoodie and a toque. She doesn’t want to cool down. She checks everybody’s boots. Hers and the bandana guy’s are well worn. The boy’s are not yet broken into. The man and she exchange a look.

She can tell he’s followed her thoughts, but he makes no attempt to show if he’ll help protect the youth from himself or not. She decides he hasn’t made up his mind yet and leaves it at that. A fourth motorcyclist stops, coming from the other side of the road. They are separated by two lanes. He nods to acknowledge them but doesn’t dismount. He goes through the motions of turning off the engine, but he leaves the radio on. Music can be heard faintly from large speakers. Shortly after, another motorcyclist stops at the side of the newcomer. They exchange a few words and he goes and parks further. He’s Black, which is unusual. He nods at us, and we nod back. Again, I glance at the bandana man, who feigns not to see me. He’s staring at Thierry with a glint of merriment in his eyes, like Thierry is putting on a show for his amusement. The rain is letting up. Thierry has taken out bright yellow rain gear he’s changed into while the others have arrived. He’s getting ready to go, still agitated at the idea of being late.

– It’s different rules for bikes, she tries to explain to him. People around you have to understand you’re at the mercy of the weather. Better to arrive alive, yes?

– It’s my girlfriend, he blurts out. She says I’m always late picking her up.

– Stay safe, she offers in a worried voice.

He leaves, a bright yellow sun parting the curtain of rain. The gray soon engulfs him, and he’s gone. She’s grown relaxed in the bandana man’s quiet presence. The overpass shudders with the passage of trucks but otherwise it feels like a husk, except when the cars drive through, piercing their fragile cocoon. She’s comfortable waiting. She doesn’t feel the itch to take out a book. Well, maybe a little. The two bikers on the other side are sharing a smoke and laughing. She feels as though she’s on the outside looking in. She’s warmed up. She pulls off her gloves and lays them on the seat of her bike.

– Husband, eh?

He’s pointedly looking at her ringless fingers. He’s got a deep voice, rather pleasant. She shrugs and pulls up the corners of her mouth in a tight smile. He finally detaches from the wall and extends his left hand. She looks at the right one, so he obliges and puts it up for her to see. He’s missing the pinky. She shakes the left hand with her left. “Pete,” he says. “Jean,” she answers, off guard. The rain has picked up again, with gusts of wind. She’s thinking of Thierry. Pete says, as though following her thoughts, “He may just come back, you know.” She nods, mechanically. “You have any kids?” he asks, acknowledging her maternal stirrings towards Thierry.

She hears herself answer “Not yet,” to her surprise. She’s never considered raising a family so this is not a typical answer for her.  And why did she blurt out her real name to this man? She’s behaving erratically. “From the looks of it, I’d say we should be able to leave soon. See how the low clouds are moving fast? Above them, the sky has cleared. The sun will dry this stretch of road in no time.” He’s coherent and knowledgeable. She’s curious now. Her preconceptions had gotten the best of her. He’s not a typical Harley rider, though he’s got the half helmet, reminiscent of WWI war movies. It looks like a soldier’s helmet, on closer inspection. “Vet?” she asks. “My granddad’s,” he answers proudly. “Got him through a war. Should get me through this life.”

The men on the other side are starting their bikes. The sweet smell of gas fills the air. She hurries to her bike and takes the toque and hoodie off, puts on her high gloves and helmet. Pete is watching her appreciatively. He’s fastened his helmet and put on a leather jacket with fringes. It looks natural on him. They start their engines and slowly ease back on the slick road. He’s motioned to her to ride in front and they ride together for a while. He’s got her back.

 

 

 

Bright Yellow Sun

Her pudgy arm was raised and she was pointing at the high cupboard. In her fist, she held a red crayon. She let out an exclamation that could’ve been frustration or joy. At her feet was a piece of paper with a non-descript red scribble. He sighed and got up. He was hungry and grabbed the cookie jar from the cupboard. Eleanore let out a happy sound. “You want one?” he offered. Her face became red as she shook her head no. “Suit yourself,” he said, grabbing milk from the fridge. His little girl was a mystery to him. If only she could talk. The incoherent babble was a pain. She knew a handful of words and used “No” profusely. He was snacking standing up, a little irritated by her agitation. She was still gesturing with one fist, the other pounding the cabinets. He could tell a tantrum was close.

He downed the milk and swept the crumbs in his hand then into his mouth. Those were good crumbly cookies. The little blob was adamant that she wanted something. He crouched beside her, stared at the raised fist trying to see what she was pointing at. There was a box of crayons on the shelf by the cookie jar. What an idiot he’d been. “Crayon?” he asked hopefully. She rewarded him with a smile and an energetic nod. He took the red crayon from her tiny fist and put it back with the others before closing the cupboard door. He left the room, smugly satisfied with his fatherly powers of deduction.

Eleanore’s shoulders drooped as she slowly banged her head on the cabinets. Frustration oozed from her every pore. Her picture lay incomplete at her feet, missing a bright yellow sun.

The Reader

He read with a mathematician’s mind. “12 pages to go!” “On average, the chapters have 14 pages.” “The longer chapters are all about exposition. There is more action in the shorter ones.” I had recommended a book I had just finished reading, thinking he would like it. “Where are you at?” I asked. “I’m five pages into chapter 6.” “I mean, what’s happening? Where are you at in the story.”

He looks at me as though I’m slow, as though he’s already answered the question and rattles what’s happened in chapters 1 to 6. “I thought you’d read it?” he asks with a hint of suspicion. “I’m not doing your homework for you, am I? If there’s a book report at the end of it, you have to tell me now. I will read differently.” “No, nothing like that. I thought you’d enjoy the story. It made me think of you.” “Why?”

Now it’s my turn to turn diffident. The main character is clearly on the autism spectrum, but I don’t want to offend him. “He likes math” is all I can think of. That seems to satisfy him.