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.

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.

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.

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. �