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