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. �

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.

The Dare

The soft inky texture, an abysmal black, Elvis on velvet, kitsch and drama. No wonder I felt blue, a strange vertigo as my cheek caressed the soft fabric. What a dare! To lay in a coffin for a night. Pure terror, reflections on mortality – which would it be? My co-conspirators each trying on the vow of silence, sworn to sharing their experience the next morning. One mused about second-hand coffins, like pre-washed jeans, rendered supple and full of life by our youth, another confessing to wet dreams and happy thoughts he hoped would go with the defunct into the netherworld, a third taking solace in the comfortable abode, finally cured of his thirst for death, just another sleep, nothing more. And me. Me who had initiated the dare, spending the night awake, feeling the tenderness in the handiwork of the final resting place. We could choose to keep the lid open or closed and, but one, we all chose to close it, the better to experience a simulacrum of death after testing that indeed we could raise the lid from inside. My father ran the local funeral home and had just gotten an order of coffins in, for the war was raging and business was brisk. We were fourteen and fifteen, could not pass, could not enlist. Between us, we had few facial hair, nothing in the way of a five o’clock shadow, no dirt on our upper lips, just dreams of glory and of stars in girls’ eyes.

What a sight it would have been, had my father chanced upon us before dawn, soft snores emanating from the wooden boxes, dreams softening the air, unruly mops as the lids slowly lifted and we emerged from the chrysalis, a mocking smile on our lips, eyes full of mischief. It beat smoking and drinking this daring feat, Hades chatting up Morpheus. The room needed airing, the coffin pillows fluffing, before we slinked out, with nervous laughs and guilty stares. We swore never to tell. If I am telling now, it’s that the others are gone and that our foolishness was child’s play, with no disrespect intended. It merely cemented our friendship, solidified our beings. We were kids before the dare, but not quite the same after we emerged from it. Peter and I were the most affected. We had been troubled going in and the deed sealed the deal. If my father suspected anything, he didn’t let on. After that night, I treated the coffins with more respect, understanding them from the inside, so to speak. I felt reverence for the artisans who chose to create their best pieces for a short moment of glory, like wedding cakes to be marvelled at and consumed. It is in the nature of art that beauty outlasts its creation and lives on in the imagination.

During my short stay in the velvety comfort of the coffin, I’d had the company of a fly. I suppose flies are to be expected around corpses, but we were young and vital. I suspect my pungent smell resulted from an excess of young sap in the blood as I didn’t want to entertain the possibility of fear. Nevertheless, I was the only one who was so accompanied, and I felt it was my luck. Far from being incommoded by the insect, I was glad for the company. While the others snored, I felt the fly walking about me and saw it rubbing its legs as a soldier might have done to try and erase invisible bloodstains on his hands. Thus I spent the night, straining to hear the buzz, rejoicing and cursing the insect in one breath. I was hoping and dreading sleep and the buzzing fly was my perfect alibi. Velvet has remained my favourite covering, though it is a rare choice, people choosing virginial silk over the heavy velvet with its somber associations.

I took on my father’s business, flies and all. Truth be told, in the basement where we prepared the bodies, it wasn’t as cool as we would have liked so we had to work quickly. When working evenings on the makeup and such, we would open the back door to get a bit of a breeze. I collected in a jar the flies who ventured in and released them back in nature at closing time. I disliked killing any creature. When the time came, we had a nice funeral for my father. He had made no prior arrangements, a poorly shod shoemaker, so I set his body down in black velvet. His pale face was a nice contrast on the dark pillow and heightened his fine features. I dressed him with his white tuxedo. He had lost weight in his last months, and it fit him nicely. With the white tuxedo and sideburns, on black velvet, he could almost pass for his idol. I hoped the softness of the fabric gave him some pleasure. It was the coffin in which the fly and I had spent that night, years ago. Nobody had claimed it. It was unloved except secretly by me and my father who I am sure would have approved of my choice. He was thrifty and had lost money in that deal. I knew he had a soft spot for the coffin, having held on to it over the years. As for me, I had kept the brass fixtures polished and daily dusted its fine body. It was as familiar as an old steed and my hope was that it would bring my father safely to the other side, the love and care I had lavished on it permeating the wood and its occupant. Paying homage to my father one last time, I was alone with him to say my goodbyes. I gently unscrewed the top of the jar and laid it by his side. The gentle buzz would keep him company on his long journey.

The Dentist

The dentist waits for me with her instruments of torture. I try to look indifferent, glancing at her credentials on the wall. Her assistant ushers me in. I try to understand the mind of someone whose job it is to hurt people. As a child, how wonder if she tore wings off butterflies or legs off a spider. Perhaps her parents detected a streak of sadism in her and directed her into dentistry. I hear the whirring of the instruments and wonder what possessed me to come to this place of hurt.

I remember the first time. The adults conspired to make it a good experience. They had decided that whatever the outcome, no painful work would be done on my teeth. The idea was to familiarize myself with the office and see it as a benign location, or at least neutral. When we arrived, a little boy my age was trembling from fear. He suddenly dissolved into tears, saying between sobs “Don’t make me!” I quickly lost my composure, and started crying, filled with dread. A white coat took the boy away. I heard screaming, a real tantrum as the boy struggled against his tormentors.

I was there with my older brother, a quiet, unassuming boy with a vicious side. I knew I wasn’t getting any sympathy from him. The assistant came “Jacoby?” He looked at me. “There are two of us. This is my sister’s first time.” The assistant smiled, all teeth out. “Who wants to go first?” John nudged me. I looked up in fright at his placid eyes. He took pity on me. “Will you stay here quietly with a book if I go first? I won’t be too long.” I nodded furiously.  He got up as though to grab a cookie from the cookie jar, all smooth and self-assured. Cookies – instant cavities. I could feel my mouth watering. Will the thought of cookies bring on a cavity? I focused instead on proper brushing techniques. I was afraid there would be some kind of pop quizz.

The boy came back out, holding a lollipop. I made eye contact, he stuck out his tongue, eyes still red from the crying, snot on his sleeve. He seemed oddly content. I suppose they gave him electroshocks to erase his memory. I had a fine brain and did not want it ruined. I debated whether I should run away. If I went home, it was only a matter of time before they dragged me back, maybe in a straitjacket so I could not resist. I was swinging my skinny legs, wondering if I should pick up a magazine or something. There were children’s books, but I was no longer a baby.

My brother came out, a hand on his cheek, his eyes unfocused and dull. His bravado had left him. He collapsed on the chair beside me and said nothing. The knot in my stomach was too tight to unravel. Regret flooded me. I should have run while there was still time. The assistant was waiting for me, all fangs out in what passed for a smile. I put myself in God’s hands, and valiantly headed in her direction, ignoring her outstretched hand. I would not befriend the enemy, nor succumb to bribery. I would not crack under torture, nor divulge any names.

The dentist appeared. She was a petite woman with soft brown hair and a mask she had lowered to her throat, no doubt hiding some terrible deformity. The chair was way too big for me, all leather with a swiveling lamp mounted on it. I did not see any restraining belt though I was on the lookout for it. I took in the environment, sterile and threatening. They both wore tight-fitting gloves, the ones that leave no fingerprints. There was a spot of blood on the sink. My eyes could not let go of the blood. I am pretty sure I blanched. The assistant/bodyguard wiped down the sink and made the stain disappear. Leave no trace. I hardened my resolve.

The dentist told me her name was Sandy and asked for mine. I gave her a fake name, followed by fictitious rank and location. She looked at her chart and said, tentatively, “Isobel?” I nodded yes, defeated. Her assistant put something around my neck that held a paper towel under my chin. There were pictures on the wall of ugly mouths and beautiful mouths, diseased gums and healthy gums, the stuff of nightmares. She asked me if I brushed my teeth, clearly a trick question. The bodyguard loomed behind, towering over us both. I refused to answer. The dentist said she wanted to have a look at my teeth. “Open wide,” she said. I didn’t. She opened her mouth wide to show me, like I was some idiot. It was a neat trick. Monkey see, monkey do. Still, I resisted. The assistant opened wide. I was the only one in the room with her mouth closed. They still had their mouths open, gaping holes, moist and smelling of peppermint. I peered inside with interest at those large teeth. Mine were small and inoffensive. I tentatively loosened my jaw and opened my mouth. She showed me a shiny instrument with a mirror at the end and slowly introduced it in my mouth. At some point when I was not paying attention, they had both put their masks back on. The bodyguard had bushy eyebrows, I could pick her out in a lineup, if need be. My heart was beating hard. I started squirming.

Two hands clasped my shoulders. The bodyguard had moved behind the chair. The dentist was making reassuring noises while the oversized monster was holding me down. She had the strength of four gorillas and smelled the same. The dentist had taken out her instrument and my mouth closed on itself again. My teeth were safe. We were in this together. The dentist had a tray with a bunch of shiny instruments. She picked up a hook. “I will poke at your teeth to see if they are sound. I will just click them and see if they are solid. Now, open wide.” I nodded my understanding, but my jaw wouldn’t loosened. She tugged on her mask and opened her mouth. I complied.

It didn’t hurt. She gently tapped my pearly teeth, complimenting me on my great hygiene. The gorilla’s grip had loosened, and she now moved about the room, preparing other instruments, her back to me. The dentist said, “We’re almost done. Corine will brush your teeth with a rotary toothbrush. Which flavour do you want, lemon, strawberry or mint?” “Strawberry please,” I whispered. The ordeal was almost over. I had started relaxing when the whirring sound started. “Corine” was approaching with a crazed glint in her eyes. A muffled voice came from under the mask, “Open up!” I knew an order when I got one. I opened my mouth and the whirring toothbrush tickled my teeth. She went up and down and around. Saliva burst forth to taste the strawberry paste. She handed me a paper cup filled with cool water. “Rinse and spit.” I did but missed the mark. The chair was too wide, and some of the spit dribbled down the side, in a reddish liquid stain.

The gorilla took off my paper towel. It was peppered with pink toothpaste splatter. Underneath, my t-shirt was pristine. My tongue kept going over my teeth. They were smooth and polished, pleasant to the touch. Corine had me choose a toothbrush (green) and brought me back to the waiting area where John waited. He was reading a magazine distractedly. He paid and took my hand. When we were out, he asked, “How did it go?” “I bit her.” He looked at me with admiration. “Did you draw blood?” “Yep,” I said in no uncertain terms. His face was still swollen on one side, the result of a beating by the dentist no doubt. He put his hand in his pocket, looked at the coins. “Let’s go for ice cream.” We ate the cool sweetness in the silence of those who have been through hell and survived.

High Noon

Chet stopped the pickup truck in the middle of the road. The red one coming along surely was Bernie’s. Bernie idled alongside him. They lowered their windows and shook hands. They were shooting the breeze amicably when a car they didn’t know came along. It sat behind Chet. Neither Chet nor Bernie paid it any mind. The driver of the car turned off his engine and waited. They were amused. They leisurely ended the conversation and left, each pickup going its own way, resuming travel. Looking in their mirror, they saw the car hadn’t moved. Chet turned in the first dirt road he came to and sat there to observe. Bernie was doing a U-turn. He drove back and stopped his truck behind the stranger’s car. The stranger didn’t move. The proper thing to do when two vehicles visited was to wait politely for their drivers to finish their conversation. When one person stopped in the middle of the road? He didn’t know what the rule was. The stranger had been polite and shown no impatience. He hadn’t honked. Was he from those parts? Bernie didn’t recognize the car. It was one of those imported vehicles with sleek lines and tinted windows.

Curiosity had gotten him this far. He turned off the engine and walked over towards the driver’s side. The driver started the engine and inched forward as Bernie was walking towards the car. He called out “Hey, Mister!” but the car kept going, just a little faster than he did on foot. Frustrated, he retreated to his truck, started the engine and proceeded to follow. The car stopped again, unexpectedly, in the middle of the road. Bernie had seen the move coming. He passed the car and stopped in front of it. He got out of the truck, but the car passed him slowly in the empty lane. Chet was looking at the whole dance. At first, he had been laughing heartily but he was growing as frustrated as Bernie. He backed his truck to block both lanes in front. Bernie saw what he did and maneuvered the same way behind. The car was now sandwiched, both its front and rear escape routes blocked. It sat there, forlorn.

Neither Chet nor Bernie wanted to get out of the truck. It was a question of honour now. They had started this game of cat and mouse and were not about to give up. Bernie was already preparing the story he was going to tell the guys around the pool table. He couldn’t wait to see how it was going to end. Chet was the first to move. He saw the police flashing lights from afar. He had lost his license on a DUI charge and should not be on the road. But it wouldn’t be manly to back down. His indecision cost him. It was Constable Conway, who had it in for him. They stared at each other from afar. Conway’s radio was crackling under the hot summer sun. It was midday, when things get resolved. No doubt “piggy” Conway was on his way to lunch. Maybe his stomach would urge him on. Chet moved his truck aside to let the cruiser through. Conway rolled down his window. “Got your license back?” “I’m not driving. Just waiting for my cousin to come back and move the truck. Thought I’d listen to the radio.” Conway narrowed his eyes. He motioned to the car with his chin. “Dunno,” answered Chet. And then, “I hope my cousin’s coming back soon. My stomach’s growling like a dog seen his shadow.”

The fat man opined and rolled his window up. Beads formed on his forehead, a crown of thorns miraculously appearing during the exchange. He wiped his face and turned the air conditioning up a notch then drove over to the car. You could tell he was wary of the tinted windows. Conway spoke to the dispatcher over the radio then extracted himself from the police cruiser. Hands hooked on his belt, badge in evidence, he walked over to the car. The window did not slide down. He rapped on it and tried to peer through it but saw only his own reflection, his mirrored sunglasses repeating his likeness to infinity. Conway shifted his weight from one foot to the next. He cleared his throat and looked at Chet. Chet was watching using the oversized side mirror, non-committal. He avoided eye contact. The constable made a big show of taking down the license plate and proceeded back to his car. The mystery car purred alive and slowly started rolling. Conway hurried to the cruiser and put the flashers on, tailgating the offender. The two pickups followed in a slow procession, large soul-expanding western music blasting out of Chet’s truck. He loved western movies, and his heart was dialed into “High Noon.”

The car with the tinted windows cruised at low speed, the pursuit reminiscent of O.J.’s. They were too intent to realize the absurdity of the situation. At last, they made it to their destination. The lead car stopped in front of the emergency entrance of the hospital. Staff in white erupted from the large doors pushing a wheelchair. The car door opened slowly. An elderly Asian man faltered out. He waved weakly at Conway and was wheeled away. Conway, quick as a whip, followed them inside mumbling “We were escorting him.” The businessman was treated for heatstroke and Conway hailed as a hero. Mr Chen had been expected earlier but presumably got lost, turning at the wrong field, rows of corn mocking him until he got dizzy and lost. He did not know to turn on the air conditioning, his body clad in a black suit did not register the intense heat, did not know the sweet release of perspiration, the coolness of the wind.

 

 

Mr. President

He was rummaging through his pockets, a frown wrinkling his forehead.

– Mr President? May I help you with something?

– I don’t smoke anymore, do I?

– No, Mr. President. The First Lady has forbidden it. It’s bad for your health. They are waiting for you for the lighting ceremony.

Hands in his pockets, still fiddling, the President turned to follow. “Will there be kids?” “A choir, Sir.” “Let’s not keep the children waiting.”

They made their way to the large hall. The First Lady was already there, all smiles. He waved enthusiastically at the children, some of them waving back, all of them smiling. Their pure voices rose in the great hall, perfect acoustics. The Christmas tree was majestic, looking at them benevolently. The President and the First Lady were beaming at the choir. Proud parents were lined behind, taking pictures, more excited than the kids. Security was unobtrusive. Everything was going well. The President made an impromptu speech. He exuded warmth and seemed to have all the time in the world. He made a joke which got a good response, and then hit the switch. The lights in the great hall dimmed and the tree shone bright, to oohhs and aahhs.

The President then approached the choir and ruffled hair, caressed a few cheeks, chatted up the youngsters. He would not be hurried along and glared at his aide. The dignitaries would wait. Finally, he sighed and regretfully took his leave, the children breaking into song again. As he left the great hall, the First Lady pecked him on the cheek. “Nine o’clock, don’t be late.”

He saw the dignitaries, a secret meeting that could not be avoided, then retreated to his quarters to change into a tuxedo and met up with his wife in a beautiful silver gown. He shook his head. “What?” she enquired. “You’re so beautiful. I don’t deserve you.” “You’re pretty strapping yourself,” she answered. Little Johnny was playing underfoot. “Daddy, daddy, look at my train!” The train was circling the base of their tree. It had a secondary track and a station. Some wagons were loaded with miniature gifts and others with all manner of things the child had found, a pair of socks, a small teddy bear, hanging precariously.  The tree was large and the track a bit convoluted. The nanny kept an eye on the boy. A security agent was close at hand. “That’s a great-looking train, Johnny!” “It can go real fast!” “We’ll play with it later, son. I’ve got to meet some people and do grown-up things first.” “Okay, daddy. See you soon.”

The President was looking distractedly around the room, his eyes searching every corner. He walked over to his desk and opened a few drawers. “Anything the matter, dear?” He looked at her. She could see alarm in his face. “What is it?” “I… Have you seen… Don’t mind me.” He was sweating, and she discreetly called the security agent. “Get the doctor, will you?” She did not hurry her husband along, instead took her time applying her makeup and fussing with her hair. He went into the adjoining room where he could be heard opening and closing closet doors and quietly sliding open drawers. She waited. “The Doctor is here,” said the agent. She got up to greet her and whispered something to her. The President came out. The doctor had brought her bag and a bottle of Scotch. They shook hands. The Doctor proffered the bottle “For later,” she cautioned. “First, please have a seat. It’s time for your blood pressure.” The others exited the room, save for the security agent, sworn to secrecy.

“Is everything okay?” she asked. The President was clearly agitated. “Well, since you ask. I can’t really tell anyone. I really feel like a fool.” She waited quietly. “I can’t find the button.” “The button?” He fidgeted and lowered his voice. “The detonator. In case of a nuclear attack.” She did not immediately answer but blanched. “When did you notice it missing?” “An hour or so ago, before the lighting ceremony.” “Have you told Simone?” “Simone, no, no, no. I don’t want to worry her.” “Have you told anybody else?” “Only you. You are sworn to secrecy.” She was taking his blood pressure and noting it down with the time of day. “You need to tell someone. They will help you find it.” “You’re not listening! My enemies will have a field day. ‘He’s getting senile. He’s not fit for office.’ They’ll hang me out to dry. I just need to retrace my steps.”

A discrete knock. Simone’s smile at the door. “Ready when you are!” She beamed at her husband who beamed back. He started rolling down his shirtsleeve. “Be right with you. I’m as fit as a fiddle,” he boasted. Her eyes darted at the doctor, who averted her gaze. Back at her husband, putting on his tuxedo. He offered his arm. “Shall we?” They were magnificent together and danced with much grace. The banquet was a success, allies vying for his time. A little before 9, he announced he had a meeting he could not postpone with his son. Cheers rose. “I will only be a moment.” He seemed back to his old self, unburdened and light. The couple left for their apartment, to tuck in their young son.

Johnny was already in his pyjamas, having eaten and taken his bath. He was waiting in the living room, playing with his electric train, nanny at the ready. “Daddy, you promised.” The President kneeled by his son. Johnny was excited. He turned the knob too hard and the train derailed behind the tree. The President reached out to right the locomotive and set the wagons back on the track. On the side, in a jumble, the teddy bear and… the detonator. He looked at little Johnny. “Where did you find this?” “Under your bed,” answered the boy, unconcerned. The President pocketed the detonator and embraced the boy in a bear hug. “To bed, my Prince.” Little Johnny knew better than ask for a few minutes more.

The President scribbled a note which he sealed. “To the Doctor,” he ordered the agent. As the couple was heading back to the soiree, the President squeezed the First Lady’s arm. “What a sweet boy. I am glad we slipped out to tuck him in.” She knew him so well. Family was the most important thing to him. He would never hurt a fly.

A Boy Named Hu

The school called. Again. He can hear his wife’s anxious, incredulous voice. She comes back to sit at his side, cradling her mobile phone. “Well?” he asks. “He wasn’t at school today,” she says, wringing her pretty hands. If she wrings them any tighter, she might manage to extract some of the anxiety she feels. He breathes deeply to stem the anger that has risen. Exhales, trying to control his voice. “We cannot leave work every time he goes missing. He will be back to eat.” She shoots him a furious look. “We are talking about my son, not a stray dog!” The familiar scene repeats, ending in tears and apologies, both the mother and step-father in a state.

A client calls for their attention. She offers him a seat on a footstool as he takes off his shoes. She pours her special brand of hot water and herbs to relax and soothe the feet. The men make small talk as the client’s feet soak. The wife is massaging his shoulders, back and neck. She is kneading the muscles and her frustration and fear for her son evaporates. Her job consumes all her attention. She must be focused to do it well. She cannot allow herself to be distracted by worry. As the client relaxes, she gets into a rhythm. “Shall I do the head too? It’s extra.” The client agrees. He is putty in her hands. The cranial technique is like opening a valve. She likes to think of it as a Ouija board. She lightly touches the head and it responds on its own, revealing secrets.

Time for the feet now. Her husband has prepared the lounge chair with fresh towels. He dries the client’s feet and props them on the footstool. It’s a busy day on the street and the client takes in the hustle and bustle from his oasis. The foot and leg massage has begun, with the husband expertly applying lotion to one foot and rubbing and massaging pressure points on one foot, then the other. He’s working on a few rather painful points as his wife is offering tea and a snack of dried plums. She wraps the kneaded feet into a hot towel and rubs them then dries them. The husband continues working up the leg, and into the thigh, then handles the other.

They make a great team. They have a steady stream of clients and cannot resume their conversation about Hu. They close shop at supper time. They live upstairs so it’s not like they waste time in the commute. They hardly ever give each other a massage, though she would sorely need his healing hands today. She complains of a headache. He offers tea, but no massage. He is tired too, and anxious she knows. The boy has not returned, and night has fallen. He can feel her gaze on him though she says nothing. He tries to read the paper, knows he won’t escape it. He puts his mobile phone in his pocket. “Call me if he comes back,” he says softly as he heads out for the Internet cafes.

Hu is possessed by the gaming demon, has been since he was a boy. As a teenager, he is even harder to corral, and all their efforts have come to nothing. Hu dreams of fame, of being discovered. He haunts Internet cafes where he is a local celebrity. His parents want him to have normal dreams, at ground level. He wants nothing to do with the business. It is a rough patch like all parents and children go through. They hope that with patience and love he will find his way into the foot massage business, an honourable occupation, if not profitable. The father walks the streets alone, entering arcades and cafes, on his fool’s errand, handling the phone in his pocket to feel the vibration that will call him home. Being a father can be a lonely business.

An Eye for an Eye

Everybody agrees it was an accident. “It’s all fun and games until you lose an eye,” they said. Turns out they were right. It’s no fun having just the one good eye. It makes it hard to judge depth and distances. The thing I can’t get over is the glee I saw in my brother’s eye just before the ball hit me full speed. “He said he was sorry. Are you going to hold a grudge all your life?”

Seriously, my parents can be the most irritating people on Earth. Of course, I will hold it against him to my last breath. You would too if the image seared on your retina was this idiot grin of this idiot guy you are unfortunate enough to call your brother. I smolder. Don’t worry, I’m not keeping it in. As soon as we are alone, I make him pay for his deed. Over and over again. He is racked with guilt so he takes it.

As adults, he still says I am the mean one. Truth is, I’ve had surgery and have regained much of my sight. He was working in Bahrein at the time of the operation. As we aren’t very close, it didn’t occur to me to tell him the news. What started as an oversight became a point of pride. How long before he noticed my improved vision, how much better my coordination was, and how I suddenly managed to beat him at the bean bag game.

The joke was on me. It turned out he had known for years about the surgery and was hurt that I had maintained the charade. Of course, somebody would have told him. It just never occurred to me, so busy was I holding on to the grudge. After that, the chasm just deepened. I never apologized, maintained the position that I was the hurt party forever and ever. He just gave up on the relationship. I held that against him as well. He was the oldest, he should make the effort.

On her death bed, my mom urged us to make up. We were both there at her side and we shook hands. We loved her dearly and were by then master at the art of concealing our true feelings. Dad was senile. We ended up having only each other though we were both married. His marriage had ended in divorce, but he was very close to his children. My wife and I were high school sweethearts. We never had children. I couldn’t reconcile the kind man that was my brother with the grin in my mind.

I ended up becoming as mean as I had made him out to be. I was embittered and resentful. My dog was vicious. I ruled him with an iron fist. We were always at odds with each other. He was a miserable beast, always baring his fangs at me, trying to attack. My wife was afraid of him, but I was determined to tame him. I wasted money on a behaviourist, yelled at him until he growled, hit him when he growled until he cowered. My idiot neighbours called the police on me and they took the dog away. Good riddance.

My wife leaves on her own after another fight. She always seems to manage to say the wrong thing to set me off. I end up going by myself to my high school reunion, though of course she’s there in a corner, saying mean things about me. Larry is there as well. We used to be friends before my “accident”. He lived outside of the village, on a farm. As a young man, he was caught in one of those big farm implements and ended up losing an arm.

He’s the life of the party. He’s done well with what life has given him. He did not begrudge the lost arm. I hear him say, “It could’ve been worse. I could’ve broken the machine.” I remember how his dad always spoke to him roughly, treating him like a slave, yet he’s taken him in when his mother passed away. I can’t make sense of him.

He calls to me when I came near. “Biff!” I haven’t heard that name since we were friends. A little bit of ice melts around my heart. “How’s your eye?” For the first time ever, I downplay it. “Actually, I had surgery and recovered most of my vision.” “I am so happy for you. I was devastated when that happened. Your parents said you couldn’t have visitors. I am so glad we’re able to catch up.” ‘ve never had the opportunity to talk to a friend who’s been through an event similar to mine. “How did you react when you lost your arm?” He lowers his voice. “It wasn’t strictly an accident. We were arguing, my dad and me. You remember how it was between us at that time? We were always angry at each other. I shoved my dad, he shoved me back. I slipped and as I tried to break my fall, my hand and arm were pulled into the auger.” He shudders. “I can still feel the pain. The body remembers.” He’s looking at me intently as I nod, transfixed. “But you’re taking care of your dad now?” “The old fart is a shadow of himself. I’ve had to come to terms with that awful day. I was harming myself with all those negative thoughts, you know? Life is beautiful! It seems I needed to be taught that the hard way.” He flashes a genuine smile. It brings me back to our youthful days, before I turned sour.

– Where’s Cathy? You guys came separately?

– We had a bit of an argument. It’s my fault. I don’t cut her any slack.

– She’s still as beautiful as ever. You really hit the jackpot with her. I’ve envied you all those years. Did you have any kids?

– No, I didn’t want any.

– I never married. A good thing too. Whoever she would have been couldn’t have put up with the old man! Speaking of which, I must be going. Give Cathy my love. And if you guys ever break up, let me know, I’ll take a number!

We share a manly hug. It would be awkward to shake with the left hand. I go over to Cathy and her friends, feeling like the teenager I once was. “Cathy, you want to dance?” Looks all around. The girls giggle. They’re women, but they still giggle. I smile widely. “Why Biff, I thought you’d never ask.” We hit the dance floor, as years fall off our backs and we fall in love again.

Five dollars

I am making disciples left and right. Not that my message is so compelling, but I have the delivery down to an art form. I have been out of work and on my last pennies. Maggie had suggested I try my hand at stand-up comedy. I had scoffed at the idea. It’s one thing to make people you know laugh, and quite another to stand in front of a room full of strangers and deliver material you’ve crafted. Still, I must admit I have a way with words.

I head over to Hyde Park and get up on my soapbox. I’ve carefully considered my options and drafted a placard that reads “Will voice your opinion eloquently – 5 minutes = $5”. I am a diminutive person but I exude confidence. A couple is walking in my direction, arguing. The man is gesticulating wildly, clearly frustrated. The other man is sullen, and looking straight ahead. He is avoiding eye contact. His eyes rest on the sign, not registering its meaning. They seem like perfect clients.

As they pass me, the meeker of the two, the one who had seemed not to take the sign to heart, stops and takes out a fiver. “I want to talk to the lady.” The other stops mid-sentence, annoyed. He smiles as he reads the sign. My client introduces himself. “Hello, I’m Henry. This is my partner Lewis. I am a creative. I can’t seem to make Lewis understand that I need our apartment to be messy in order to create.  I don’t want to spend time cleaning up after myself. It just takes away my focus. Can you help?” I nod and start. “The Universe is chaotic. It ferments with life. Within the apparent chaos is order and repetition. What you conceive as messy is only the first layer of understanding. The messiness reflects the internal turmoil of the creator but it contains order in its midst.” “But he keeps losing important documents I give him! He is irresponsible,” shouts Lewis, in exasperation.

“Them’s are fighting words,” I reply. “Perhaps you can look at things in a different light. You can either nurture his genius or smother it with rules. His brand of creativity thrives in a limitless environment. He needs the stimulation that randomness provides. A dirty bowl, discarded clothes, books on the floor. In the grand scheme of things, does it really matter? Would you rather spend the little time you have together arguing about misplaced documents or remember why you were together in the first place?”

I bite my tongue. I was about to go into a harangue about how women have always placed themselves in a supporting role, feeding the other at their own expense. I don’t think this is the time for it nor, perhaps, something to emulate. It certainly has not advanced the role of women in the world. Lewis is glaring at me. “But we need to find the document,” he pleads. “When did you last see it?” “In his hands!” “When was that?” I walk him back through time and suddenly, he exclaims, “In the buffet! Remember, love? You had your hands full and you told me to put it on top of the dresser and I said it wouldn’t be safe there? I walked them over to the buffet. In the top drawer!” They look at each other, radiant.

“You, Miss, are an angel. Much cheaper than my therapist, and much more efficient. Please, tell me your name again.” I introduce myself. He takes my hand in both his hands, presses a few bills in them. “God bless,” as they retrace their steps, in a hurry to find the papers. I look down at my hands. Fifteen dollars. I tuck them away, out of sight.

Should I stay or should I go and eat a decent meal? At this exact moment, a young man stops. I smile an encouraging smile. He steps closer.

“I want her to move in with me,” he blurts without preamble. He hands me his $5. “I love her,” he adds in guise of explanation.

– Where does she currently live?

– Mostly in my head.

I smile. “She is in another state. She moved for work. I can’t bear for us to be apart.”

– How long have you been together? When did she move out of state?

– We’ve only been together a year. She moved away for work 3 months ago. She says she couldn’t pass up this opportunity.

– What is your situation?

– I am desperate. I can’t sleep nor eat.

– I meant, what is preventing you from joining her?

He blushes. “I am a student on scholarship. If I leave, it means the end of my dream.”

– And you want me to give you the words to convince her to return? Would it be in her best interest? Would it be the end of her dream?

He scowls at me. “You’re a fraud!” he shouts.

– You haven’t given me anything to work with. I can’t create an argument out of thin air. You’ve described a one-sided situation where you are needy, and she needs breathing room. You have no opinion to express, just neediness.

I hand him back his money and sit on my soapbox. He walks away, stomping angrily, like a spoiled child. It’s a beautiful day. I watch the joggers fly by, people walking their dogs, others doing tai-chi.

I can feel the jilted lover’s eyes on me. He has walked away from me, but is sitting on a bench further down. There is much foot traffic, but people read the sign, smile and keep walking.

A bearded man approaches me. Dang, don’t women have opinions they want to voice? “For $5, will you voice any opinion?” “No, sir, I cannot voice anything that will promote hatred or indecency.” “Will you make a case that the world is flat?” “Do you have $5?”

He proffers the money from a bundle. I start talking and a few idlers stop to listen. Some shake their heads, others nod, still others smile. One takes a picture. Japanese tourists gather. I make it to the end of my speech. My client has disappeared. The little crowd disperses, and my previous client shows up, chastened.

– I may have omitted a few details.

I put out my hand. He puts in the $5. “I’m listening.”

– She says I was stalking her. She wants me to stop calling.

– How did you meet?

– In a bar.

– Why is she The One?

– Because I don’t have anybody else.

– What opinion do you want me to voice?

He looks down and shuffles his feet. “It’s not fair, you know? I am a decent man, and I can’t get laid. What kind of city is this where you can’t make meaningful contact with strangers?”

– So you want me to make a case to present to God?

– Would you?

And so I do. I present loneliness as the sin it is and accuse God of having created it. I rail against the Creator, who made us unhappy alone and in need of company for our mental health. I talk of aching hearts and suicide, and all else that ails the world. A bigger crowd has formed, with more people taking pictures, others eating standing there, listening to me. I am earning my money. A few people clap as I wind down. My customer is beaming at me, no longer sullen.

We walk together to a little kiosk to buy some lunch. This is how I met the man who was to be my husband.

Not Racist

It’s not that I’m racist or anything but I thought I was meeting with my own kind. It turns out the name I took down was the name of the caller, but the agent I got was Caucasian. I don’t think the surprise registered on my face. If anything, I think he was surprised to see a woman. My name is used for both and by default people expect a man when talking about money. I don’t interact that much with Caucasians, I mean, casually, yes, but I rarely spend an hour on money matters, for example. I have read a book or two by Caucasians. That doesn’t make me an expert but still, I am not totally ignorant of their likes and dislikes.

We skipped the niceties. There was no sense trying to establish commonalities. We had a task at hand and no time to spare. I must say he had a head for numbers and his explanations were clear. He wasn’t trying to impress; he was too young for that. I asked a few questions and he dove into the subject with obvious relish. Money was a passion for him and I sensed I could trust his judgment. I saw how he could have been appreciated amongst his peers. I tried to figure out where he was from from his accent, but frankly I don’t know enough for his upbringing to tell me much. Anyway, he had an open face and engaging smile, so that settled it.

Surprisingly, my dreams that night featured a Caucasian. I suppose being in close proximity for a long period made an impression on me, though I hadn’t given him a second thought during the day. It was an indifferent dream, but obviously my mind was trying to analyze this new data. A respectful interaction with a Caucasian, with no exchange of digs or putdowns. I was always aware of his otherness to me, a little bit more than just dealing with someone of the opposite sex. It’s not a bad thing, just two species sniffing each other, trying to establish the lay of the land.

We had ended the meeting on a friendly note. He had mentioned his firm might follow up with a quick survey and he hoped I had been satisfied with his services. I felt a little smug, thinking my rating could somehow have an impact on his year-end bonus. I wasn’t a big client. He had hinted at his handling way larger sums of money (which was inconsiderate, in retrospect). He was well-dressed, though when he walked me out, I saw he was wearing black sneakers and ill-fitting pants. It made me feel good to think he was not that well off, though I shrug at my coldness as I write these words.

If I am to be frank, the rating I will give him has more to do with my biases than the actual interaction. I may say to myself I am being objective and score him strictly on things that don’t matter just because of something he said or didn’t say. He didn’t ask about my dog when I mentioned him, though my dog is like a son to me. If that isn’t bias, then what is? If it had been my son, he would have given me the courtesy of a question. Irrelevant, I know. Then there is the matter of his age.

The fact is, nowadays most people are younger than I am, but that doesn’t make them any smarter. He did fancy things with his computer, but he wasn’t smug about it. No, he was serious, and I liked that about him. That rating thing is niggling at me. Do I want his kind to advance? Have they not done enough to ruin our world? Will he be any different? What kind of person am I if I judge him by what his forefathers did? What does that make me?

I may just ignore the damn thing.

The Teacher

-I hear she’s very good.

-Original.

-Yes.

A hush comes over the students as the teacher comes in to a full class. She doesn’t look like much, almost the caricature of an old maid, with her hair in a bun, her large glasses and frumpy clothes. She’s even carrying a tote bag with what looks like skewers sticking out of them. She is wearing pumps. She is tall and wiry.

-She brought her lunch, says one.

The teacher breaks into a big smile, all her features suddenly animate, and the first impression evaporates.

-Good morning class, she says, surveying the assembly. This is the Creative Writing class. Please leave if you were expecting something different.

Nobody stirs. She puts the bag on the floor at her feet and rubs her hands together, her torso slightly bent towards them.

-All right. We have a very large class. Please sign the attendance sheet as you leave. My name is Ms. Gladstone. That’s “Ms.” And don’t get me started on patriarchy.

A few chuckles die as she surveys the class, intently, then turns abruptly to the blackboard. She has brought her own chalk, in a silver holder so her hands won’t end up as white as a gymnast’s before she starts her routine. “Today, I will introduce you to outline, audience, genres, etc. It will be fun.” She states that as a fact, and this time there are no chuckles, just the expectant silence of people who have paid good money for a show and want to get their money’s worth.

“I will assume you have all heard of the art of knitting.” She takes out knitting needles and small balls of wool, each a bright hue.

“Knitting is creating. A knitter will go about knitting in much the same way a writer goes about their craft. She – most knitters I know are female, so I will be using the feminine during the whole of my example. Grunt as much as you like, you lot do this to us all the time. It’s a great exercise on self-reflection, sirs.” The girls sit up straighter and look around them as the guys slump a bit in their chairs. The girls are grinning triumphantly, unused to having a professor voice their inner thoughts. “Sometimes, she will want to challenge herself with an intricate pattern she’s thought up or seen. She may or may not have a recipient in mind. Usually, she does, even if it’s not somebody she knows personally. Let’s say she’s knitting small bird nests for a rescue center. Or socks for soldiers. She still knows something of her audience, or at least has a mental image of who she is knitting for. In this case, let’s say she is knitting a sweater for her son. You see, I do love men! (the guys join in the laughter, still feeling under siege, but making the most of it.)

She writes on the board “Genre – sweater” followed by “Audience – son”. “She will follow a pattern. This pattern can come from anywhere. If she is experienced, she will make her own, from her own fancy. If not, she will copy from others. Still, she is making a sweater so it needs four holes. That is the basic design.” She adds “pattern – old, new, basic.” “She is feeling tenderness as she chooses the colours he is fond of.” She takes a few bright balls in her hand, white, blue, black and a pastel pink. “She’s not sure he will love the pink, but she feels a need to put a bit of herself in the story. She thinks the added colour will surprise and enhance the design.” She adds “Design – personal feelings, surprise, improve upon” under the first line. “We’re all agreed so far?” Nods all around. She mimics them, nods as she scans the room. Again, the engaging smile. Strands of hair have escaped the bun and are framing her face, softening it. A student is scribbling her likeness in a kitchen, over a slab, furiously rolling dough in a cloud of flour, her hair tied back messily.

-It’s easy to see how these elements relate to writing, no? Anybody care to try and explain?

A hand shoots up. She wants for others to offer their take on it. Three more hands go up. She points to a girl in the middle of class.

“I don’t think genre goes first when you’re writing. I mean, I don’t see that writing necessarily follows this order. I would say “Pattern – Design – Audience – Genre.”

The teacher claps her hands. “What is your name, love?”

-Millicent, Ms.

-Thank you, Millicent. Does anybody else agree with Millicent?
About a third of the class raise their hand. “Does anybody disagree?” The same amount of hands goes up.

A third of the class has no opinion.

-We’re here to be told about writing, not to give you the answers, comes a voice from the back.

Ms. Gladstone hangs her head. “No, love. We’re all here to learn from each other. I want you to come out with a sweater sporting orange wings and long strands with colourful beads sticking out of it. I want you to surprise me with a mix of wool and fabric, with a dash of pink when the pattern calls for gray. I want your sweater to be unique though it has holes for the torso, and the head, and the arms. “

“Your assignment for today is to write a story with a tree character. Write down the process you follow, using the elements we’ve discussed: Genre – Audience – Pattern – Design. First, write following this order. Then write a second story using the same elements but in a different order. This story should feature a homeless person. Any questions?”

-How long, ma’am?

She looks annoyed, does not answer.

-Ma’am, how long?, he insists

And then, as an afterthought, “Ms. Gladstone, how long should each story be?”

Ms. Gladstone has been putting away her props. She looks up and smiles. “Around 500 words each, love. Please, remember to sign the attendance sheet before you leave.”

She stays behind as they file out, talking amongst themselves, the scribbler and the annoyed, the curious and the eager. She can’t stand the indifferent. They weigh her down, tie her in tight knots. She is sitting at her desk, has taken off her glasses and is making eye contact and smiling at the students. The first class is an unknown on both sides. It gives the tone to the rest of the session. She can’t wait to see what stories these bright minds will come up with. She hopes she’s inspired them and that they will try and surprise her. She has not used the tired words “creativity” or “structure”, “outline” or…

-Ms.?
She looks up to see several young men who have gathered by the desk. One speaks up. “We appreciate your stance on gender politics but we were hoping for a class on creative writing.”

-You got both, didn’t you? You cannot separate the container from the content. You see, as a writer, you [i]must not[/i] give in to the temptation of fading behind your work. Your voice will always be there. Own it. Make it part of the narrative. Give your voice to your character. Express yourself knowingly instead of subconsciously. Your writing will be more powerful. I hope to see you next week. I look forward to your stories. Five hundred words! Give or take, of course.

With that, they walk out of the room, the boys headed to their next class, the teacher to knit in the teachers’ lounge. She just had this great idea for mittens…