Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Fiction #71

New fiction! Issue #71
Submissions now open for #72

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #71: Michelle Boone

Full Submission

Grace was first to notice the raccoons on the neighbour’s roof.

“Look. They’re playing.” She poked Marty in the ribs, causing him to spill his magic margarita. Everyone at the barbecue was drinking them. The Marketing Director of Best Body Foods, Nathaniel Hall, was mixing. He boasted a secret ingredient, which he challenged his staff to guess. Grace figured it was a jolt of hot sauce to balance out the sweetness of the mango. She had deduced this on her first sip, but was allowing an acceptable time lapse before going public.

“Not playing, fucking. At least, the poor guy’s trying to fuck her. But she won’t keep still.”

Oh. Great. Had she really just pointed out two raccoons copulating? To Marty. Everyone knew he’d been trying to bed her for the last seven months, ever since she’d been promoted to marketing rep for coffee. Why had she encouraged him?

Kim and Douglas came closer sensing some titillating gossip. Now the four of them huddled together watching the smaller raccoon turn her head back to bite the larger male, who was trying to mount her from behind.

Grace had chosen this spot on the upper deck, away from the bulk of Nathaniel’s guests, hoping to find some tranquility. Most partygoers were gathered on the lower deck where sirloin burgers and tofu patties were being flipped on a barbecue built into a brick island that was surrounded by posh outdoor furniture adorned with bejeweled cushions. Also on the lower level was a large jacuzzi tub that could comfortably sit twelve. Around it, stood the most intoxicated of her colleagues, daring each other to take the plunge.

She’d snuck up to the second floor and out onto this sundeck through a sliding door in the master bedroom. But Marty had a way of sniffing her out no matter what. She was lucky if she had a full minute to herself before she felt him sneak up behind her. She held her breath as his familiar stink, an overripe need, reached her nostrils. Perhaps it was her own scent, the lingering fragrance of apathy, which he’d recognized and pursued. Before long, other interlopers had spilled onto the top deck so that her illusion of solitude was completely spoiled.

“Aw, come on, Rosie. Let Rocky in.” Marty laughed hysterically, leaning into Douglas’ side.

“Yeah, a fella’s gotta use it or he’ll lose it,” Douglas said.

The female raccoon was inching her way slowly across the neighbour’s roof, the earnest male in hot pursuit. It was a desperate dance in which he grabbed her hind quarters and thrust forcefully until she eventually maneuvered around to bite his neck. Her growling and biting continued until he loosened his grip, at which point, she squirmed free, and scurried forward a few inches. Then the whole process began again.

“Yeah. Rocky must be getting real sore by now.” Marty patted his crotch, looking at Grace with a pained expression as if to garner some sympathy.

“Isn’t it obvious? Rosie’s saying, No.” Grace had an overwhelming urge to stuff one of the mangoes she’d seen on the kitchen counter into Marty’s fat mouth. Except she knew he would conveniently mistake this as flirtation, saying something like, “You’re so sexy when you feed me mangoes.”

“Rosie’s not in the mood, right Kim? Headache, I bet,” said Douglas, elbowing Kim.

Kim didn’t smile. Grace recognized in Kim’s refusal to smile her grim determination to ignore what she couldn’t control.

“Come on — surely you know — it’s a physical necessity for Rocky. For males every —”

Grace did not hear the rest of what Marty said because she couldn’t breathe. She hunched over, reaching her hand to the brick wall for support. Not a physical necessity, she thought, more like a sense of entitlement.

“Are you alright?” Kim asked.

When she was able to, Grace stood up straight, took a deep breath. “I’m fine,” she said, waving away Kim’s concern. “It’s this heat.”

Everyone was staring at her. Marty took a gulp of his cocktail. Douglas glanced down at his sandals.

Kim straightened her dress. Grace looked back at the neighbour’s roof where Rosie appeared to have given up biting Rocky. He was pumping at her rear end in five second intervals.

Full submission.

Grace understood Rosie’s sense of defeat. She remembered her despair when, years earlier, Duane had pulled the car onto an abandoned road; how a cold fist had seized her heart and squeezed. How her heartbeat thudded in her ears as he maneuvered the Plymouth slowly around giant rocks and potholes, broken branches discarded by the wind. When he finally turned off the ignition and looked at her, she didn’t have to ask why. The answer was written plainly on his face. In that instant, as she became cognizant of what he truly was, she made a decision. She would not resist. Because he wanted her to fight, she would lie as limp as a wet rag.

Laughter erupted loudly in Grace’s ear. More coworkers had gathered to gawk and point at the performance taking place on the roof. Two marketing reps had taken on the voices of the male and female raccoon.

“Why can’t I come?” said the rep for breakfast beverages.

“I told you to stop drinking that powdered crap.” The rep for desserts spoke from behind a recliner as if his invisibility made his impersonation of Rosie more convincing.

“I want you so badly.”

“You know, they really oughta repair this roof.”

“Do you like it doggy style?”

“Will you just come already?”

Grace had wanted Duane to come too. As soon as he pressed into her, her body stiffened. She tried to make her muscles go slack, tried to feel the power she told herself she held over him by not struggling. But it was difficult to feel powerful when she was so dry, afraid that his greedy cock would break her in half.

“Hey, I think they’re finally done,” Douglas said, looking up at the raccoons, who, during the course of their intercourse, had travelled all the way to the other side of the roof.

“What do think? Thirty minutes.” Marty said he planned on notifying the Guinness Book of Records.

“Not that thirty minutes would be a big deal for me” he said, eyeing Grace hungrily. “But I’m sure it’s a record for small mammals.”

Thoroughly spent, Rocky rested his snout on Rosie’s back. Her head sagged down to the roof tiles. Yes, it was exhausting to let oneself be walked all over, Grace thought.

Duane had finished with a long anguished sob. Afterward, he fumbled to pull up his jeans, lit a smoke. She took a long time to move. It was a fight just to expand her chest to draw breath into her lungs. The smoke from his cigarette drifted into the space between them, concealing his face in a fog that disappeared once he cracked open his window. He drove her home not saying a word, like nothing had happened.

The upper deck had grown quiet now that the raccoons had finally shifted apart with most people wandering away to seek refreshments below. Grace excused herself to use the restroom. She rummaged through her satchel, her hands trembling as she opened the bottle. She slipped a single yellow Zoloft under her tongue. In the vintage ornate mirror she stared at herself, watched her eyes flicker as the tablet dissolved and mixed with her saliva. She waited for the beautiful chemical burst.

There was a soft but persistent knock at the door.

She waited for the pill to kick in, to feel herself float away, before stepping out of the bathroom to reassure Marty that everything was fine. 

*

Michelle Boone divides her time between Toronto and Sedona, where she is writing a novel about surviving the Big One. “Full Submission” is her first literary publication. A former Montessori teacher and graduate of a Ph.D. in the Curriculum, Teaching and Learning Department at the University of Toronto, she has several academic publications.

Fiction #71: Joe Davies

For Janette, With Love And Fluff And Little Squalor
… [I]n small, hopelessly sincere handwriting, were the words, “Dear God, life is hell.”  Nothing led up to or away from it.
     —J.D. Salinger
From where I stand it’s as if I can see a set of steps descending before me.  Down they go, one at a time, while I perch, conceptually, somewhere near the imagined top, each step waiting to lower me into decrepitude of one sort or another.  I am fifty and have yet to really feel my age.  So far little has failed me, though the other day I broke a tooth and the barest edge of the illusion began to fray, and clichéd though they are, those steps appeared.

This happened after the meeting with Janette, the one where she said, “Write a piece intended to appeal to the widest possible audience.”  Actually, she wrote those very words on the back of the piece we were discussing at writers’ group and handed it to me.  “That’s your assignment,” she said, “Even though you never do anything I say,” which is not entirely true, though often true enough.

Quite possibly I’m the last person who should ever attempt to describe the stories I write.  To say that I often undermine the purpose of what popular fiction aspires to is one way to think of it, but I’m equally comfortable with my hazy attempts to bypass the conventions of its “higher” forms as well.  Why?  Oh God, I don’t know.  Perhaps because I was told I shouldn’t.

If rejection slips were money, I’d be rich.

What would that story look like, the one I’m not writing?  And what is “the widest possible audience”?  What do they want?  Romance?  Do they want to be titillated?  Do you show them people trying and failing and trying again and succeeding?  Is that the formula?  Give them an underdog, someone to care about?  Someone who’s basically good but flawed and succeeds despite it?  And do all the words have to be ones any grade 9 graduate could understand?

I can’t.  Not deliberately.  And I can’t tell you why I can’t.  But there seem to be principles involved.

What have we got so far then?

Nothing.

We have a laboured suggestion of metafiction with the author tapping out his dreary claim to be standing at the top of some sorry set of steps.  That’s about it.  Not even funny.  Squalor?  There’s little of that.  No vomiting in trash cans, no allusion to anyone losing his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s.  Just the idea that sooner or later it’s all downhill from here.  Or to overstate the case: “Dear God, life is hell.”
Too melancholy?  It’s a pretty word, but a sentiment best avoided.

So, to escape that, here’s a very short unfathomable story in which there is no melancholy, no plot and even less sense, a story that might be about reaching fifty and doing just fine, or perhaps it’s just words in search of a story, a mere suggestion:

*

The landing craft, just one of many in this unnumbered wave, approaches the beach.  The crowd huddled in its hull are a happy lot, drinking tea and coffee, eating fruit salad and Queen Elizabeth cake and banana bread covered with thick pats of butter.

The beach ahead is still a ways off.  Some look at it with binoculars, others claim to see it unaided, and still others can’t be bothered about the beach, since it too, like everything else in this story is merely wishing it represented something, and in fact, more people are looking back, trying to come to terms with the ups and downs and shortcomings of the crossing so far.

And so it is.  An invasion of fools, or rather, an indiscriminate gathering and the fools just happen to outnumber everyone else by a wide margin.

One leans towards another and says: “Were you born old?”

The look back is one of pleasant confusion, the question repeated: “Were you born old?”

“No.  I don’t think so.”

“Me neither.  Don’t tell anyone, but I like it this way.”

The landing, when they eventually find the beach, goes swimmingly.  All get wet.  All get sand in their shoes.  Everyone winds up in the crosshairs of someone else, but it’s to be expected.  Such endeavours are not without risk.

The ensuing procession through Europe—or wherever this is—is diverted here and there by various stops at trellis-shaded cafes and quaint village inns with holy books in bed-side tables written in languages no one speaks any longer.  Not really.  And in this way, an agreeable number of misunderstandings are avoided.  And everyone sleeps well.

Everyone.  Or so the fantasy goes.

A few puzzled souls stay up late to take a second glass of wine, perhaps a third, perhaps some brandy or a little schnapps.  The air is cooling, the sun has long set.  Dew falls on the small, cloistered gardens.  Questions get asked.  Always more questions, but that’s fine.  Just knowing there are questions is a great comfort, a balm for those with doubts, especially when the questions are understood, the reasons for asking in the first place, acknowledged.

A plate of biscuits appears, some bowls of dried fruit, a round of cheese on a worn cutting board.

At one point, to illustrate one thing or another, somebody laughs and recounts a brief but very old vignette of two men, hunched over with age.  One of the men cries out when a willow branch suddenly begins to grow from his shoulder.  The other asks, “Do you mind?”  The first says, “No.  We came here to watch life pass and life has caught up with me.  Why should I mind?”

It’s not clear if there’s anything to be garnered from this, but everyone nods and smiles all the same as if there must be something to it.

A Corporal arrives.  He steps into their midst, wearing dusty olive drab and looks as if he has probably spent the day behind the wheel of a jeep.  He has a letter from his girl, back stateside, his girl Loretta.  “She says the darnedest things,” he says, “The darnedest things” and scratches his head.  His presence is neither welcome nor unwelcome.  He has merely arrived to accentuate the contrast between those who are touched by events and those who are not.

What events?  Why, any event louder than a whisper.  Any event worth more than two nickels and a dime.

“Well,” says the corporal, beginning to back away, “I just wanted to bring you your mail.”  And he leaves a stack of envelopes and packages on the table nearest him, adding that there’s a dance going on a little ways down the hill, in case anyone’s interested.  “No?” he says, no one having stirred at his mentioning it.  “Then I’ll cut a rug for you.”

And he leaves.  And he leaves.  And he leaves.

Non sequitur, non sequitur, non sequitur.

The envelopes are handed round.  One package is opened.  The stamps are first admired.  They are beautiful, as are all the various markings showing how the package has been redirected over the years.  Inside is a broken watch and—since it is not only possible to write it but also to imagine it—a long and dwindling list of people who’s hearts were moved and how and why.

Oh, such indulgence!  Whatever for?

God so help me, I do not know.  Respect perhaps.  Curiosity.  Since over at the edge of things, off in a corner, there’s movement, and a certain Sergeant, until now unnoticed and half-asleep, says, “I miss anything important?”

“Ah,” says a voice, affable, authorial.  “Well… no.  Not really.  Just a bit of fluff.  And people growing old.”

As if rehearsed, someone stands and takes the broken watch to the Sergeant, saying, “This came for you.  Like always.”

The Sergeant nods, or something like it, and he too grows old.  He takes the watch and looks off into the warm night, and in his way, when seen in a certain light, is almost dignified, while I… I lower whatever defenses I had.  I surrender and mumble my apologies to Esme.

*

Where to from here?  Well, we could open our eyes and watch the wind bring down branches or we could stand by the skid-marks where the car went into the river.  Random personal details, obscure, I know.

Or… Quite on my own, I could go to the dentist and get my tooth fixed and watch as the steps mist over again for a spell, hiding them for later.  Something like that.  Not forgetting this began with losing the corner of a tooth.  And not shedding a tear either.  Even if time has played freely with what I once thought so solid.

*

Joe Davies' short fiction has appeared in Queen's Quarterly, The New Quarterly, The Manchester Review, The Missouri Review, Rampike, eFiction India, Planet: The Welsh Internationalist, Descant, PRISM International, Grain Magazine and previously in The Danforth Review.  He lives in Peterborough, Ontario.

The photo credit is to John Climenhage.

Fiction #71: Tim Conley

Behind the Scenes

  Kowai mono mitasa.
   – Japanese proverb

Just before the salads came she noticed that he had something up his nose. The left nostril (his left), something solid. She leaned a little closer while he was telling her about how he had gone to university to study sports management but to appease his father he took a minor in business and that decision turned out to get him the job at the bank. She tried to lean in such a way that might suggest attentiveness rather than anything more, eating her salad and trying to get a better look at the thing up his nose. It was solid and, she thought, inorganic. She was fairly certain it hadn’t been there earlier. Now he was talking about salads, because he could see that she was enjoying her salad, and didn’t she think that salads were always great when someone else made them for you, but only when someone else made them? She nodded but he pressed on: did she know what the best thing about working in the bank was? (She remembered how Chiyo insisted on paying for their coffees as she admitted, well, he works in a bank, and Kiwa repeated, he works in a bank, and Chiyo tried to laugh it off, saying, it’s a job, that has to count for something, and Kiwa said, counting is the operative word.) No, she really did not know what the best thing about working in a bank was. It gives you, he said, excitedly trying to figure out how to end his sentence, it gives you a look behind the scenes.

When he was telling her that he had taken over his father’s investment portfolio and really made something of it, Kiwa determined that the object was metallic, a greyish blue. And when he was telling her that even his uncle, who had, as a matter of fact, always dismissed his nephew as a fool, had now not only recanted but repeatedly asked him for some financial advice, she thought that she could see some sort of writing on the metallic object up his nose, though whether it was lettering or numbering the restaurant lighting refused to let her discover. Could she take him after dinner to her apartment and find him a seating position next to a strong lamp? She found herself seriously exploring the question. After all (she told herself), most of the men she had taken back to her apartment in the past couple of years had been taken out of curiosity, one way or another. She took a deep gulp of wine and he remarked that the wine was good.

She decided to let him decide. (There’s a cold streak in you, Chiyo liked to say, with equal parts amusement and admiration.) She suggested that there must be a lot of risk involved in the kind of banking he did, and she could see him trying to balance the urge to reassure her of his utter competence, not to lay too fine a point on it, and thus play down the element of risk, and the urge to acknowledge what might be a compliment, a projected image of him as a man who savours the thrill of risk. It quickly became apparent that this tightrope act was too much for him. He swayed from one tack to another: a testy distinction between the solidity of the system and the fatal lack of conviction shared by some timorous elements within the system; then a concession that the system might be improved, of course, and that banking evolves as an economy changes, like a living thing; then an apology-question hybrid seeking assurance that he was not boring her with so technical a subject; but before she could reply, had she wanted to, he denounced Chinese communism which incidentally was a very good example of how the free market prevails in the end; then he started to tell a story about a time he had stood up to or gotten the better of or barely escaped from a gang of Chinese thugs, but his doubts about its relevance slowly brought him to a stop. After a moment of looking at it fiercely, he slurped his glass empty and refilled it.

Kiwa knew that she could say nothing, that he would probably now become aloof or resentful after having letting her see such a fumble. (The wisdom of Chiyo: men without women are men unsure of themselves. And here I am supposed to be the one with the cold streak, Kiwa replied.) She was not going to let go of her mystery just yet. The server came to tempt them with dessert – she pretended to think that tiramisu was an everyday word she could not place, but the server corrected her before her date could, so she asked the server for some time to consider, and considered instead how to save the banker some face without knowing for certain why she was doing so.

My grandfather, she said, was ninety-two years old when he passed away last year. The banker, silent since his saga of the Chinese gang petered out, blinked and waited for more, undoubtedly waiting to see what this new topic had to do with him. My mother’s father, she said, and slid hair from her bare shoulder that had not been bothering her in the slightest. It is hard to believe that he’s gone. The banker said that he was sorry to hear it: had they been close? He lived with us for some of the years I was growing up, she explained, and sometimes he could be kind, very kind, and he was quiet and gentle, but he was very disapproving of so many things. Even though he would say nothing, everyone could feel his disapproval in the air, you couldn’t miss it. He would disapprove of this. Of what? Of the whole situation: eating in an “Italian” restaurant, dinner alone with a stranger, this dress. At last the banker took up his role: though we owe great respect to our elders, this is a new age, a new country. For example, he bet that her grandfather disapproved of the internet. She laughed, he did, he did, and brushed that hair from her shoulder again.

It dawned on her then, as she got another half-decent look at the thing up the banker’s nose, why she should find herself thinking about her grandfather at this moment: his models. Nothing so fully absorbed the old man than meticulously painting his diecast models of warplanes. The more detail required, the greater concentration and more time required, the prouder he would ultimately be of his accomplishment, a pride that could be measured by the discerning observer by how modest he became when it was noticed. Very tiny numbers, historically correct designations, always perfectly written –as though stencilled, though of course it was all by untrembling free hand– on the sides of those little planes. It could not be a model warplane up his nose, of course, for the size and shape were all wrong, but now it was hard not to see the inscription as numerical designation of some kind, and she decided that she would not have dessert, thank you all the same, and that she was going to ask: what do you say to a glass of wine at my place?

He paid with a golden credit card that she was meant to notice and as she passed through the door he held open she glanced back to see whether the angle and the change in lighting helped make out what that thing was when she tripped and scraped her knee on the sidewalk. The banker was gallant but began talking about the possibility of infection in a cut, even a simple scrape like that one; she winced less from the little pain in the knee than from her inability to see a way not only to interrupt but to extend the invitation and make it plausible. He had an idea – she knew this because he told her he had an idea, and waited for her to ask what it was. Do you know The Midnight Whistle? he asked. It’s a nightclub, not far from here, we can go for a drink there and get your knee cleaned and bandaged. He reiterated the dangers of infection as he hailed a taxi. She did not protest. She got into the taxi and imagined herself telling Chiyo the next day: my knee hurt, your friend’s friend is way too much of an amateur epidemiologist, but I was determined to find out what that thing was up his nose.

The taxi went east within Shinjuku, the driver talking with the banker about traffic conditions the whole way. The words Midnight Whistle were lit in lavender and even before entering she could tell that without question it was a gay club. Kiwa felt her plans drop out of reach as they stepped inside: the only lights were the blue glow of the bar and itinerant flashes of cellphones. A beefy DJ in a sleeveless tuxedo, ducking out of one set of headphones into another, was doing something with police sirens, a skipping base beat, and Cat Stevens hoping you make a lot of nice friends out there. The banker steered her to the corner of the bar. Do you come here often? she asked. He grinned: as a matter of fact, he recently became one of the owners of the building. Did he own many buildings? she dutifully asked and rubbed her knee. He obtained a clean cloth from one of the bartenders and handed it to her as he shared with her the confidential fact that he owned a few. She probably thought it was expensive, and she would be right. But as a matter of fact, he said, and here the music rendered several words inaudible, then something about a terrible slump with no good projections for the future. Something after that and then something about the bubble economy of a dozen years ago were going to be felt for a long time to come. We have to start thinking differently, he concluded. What would you like to drink?

He recommended something and she sipped it: cold and sweet, difficult to say just how potent. Almost all of the customers were men, as far as she could judge; the bartenders were a blurrier blend. Bad and beware, Cat Stevens was stammering, bad and beware. She did not like clubs and tried to show it discreetly, but turned to see the banker, whose name she realized she could not remember, downing a small row of brightly coloured shots and getting cheered on by a few guys at the bar. She looked carefully at them but saw nothing protruding from any nostrils. Nor did they seem to notice anything sticking out of his nose, but then even she could only just see it and she was standing next to him. How’s your knee? All right, she said, but thought to add: it would help if I could sit down somewhere for a few minutes. Hang on, he said. He got a beer from the bar, took her hand, and led her slowly through the jostling bodies to a staircase at the back. She saw that he was speaking as they went but she heard not a word.

Down the narrow stairs and past the toilets, he led her to a door at the end of a long hall and, releasing her hand, fished a key out from his jacket. I want you to know, he was saying when she found she could hear him again, that I appreciate your telling me about your connection with your grandfather. I appreciate your sharing that with me. He unlocked the door and reached inside for a light switch, which took him longer than it would a sober man. He told her again how much he appreciated it. And because she had shared something (he hesitated) so close to her (he hesitated, found the light) with him, he wanted to (he hesitated) share something special with her. Inside the door was another even narrower, much longer staircase leading down. (It’s all fun and games until how does the rest of it go, Chiyo whispered in her mind.) He felt her stiffen, lifted up her hand to his chest and looked straight at her. Tell me what you’re thinking, he whispered hoarsely and she could smell the rainbow of liqueurs in his breath. Her mouth, she knew, was open, might have been open for several seconds now.

The big picture, she answered after what seemed like a very long time. The pulsating music of the club was very distant. Apparently satisfied with her answer, he led her down the stairs, lightly holding her wrist as though she were somehow more fragile than before. Dozens of stairs, over a hundred, she lost count, kept going down, down, until they came to another door.
 He seemed exhausted when they stopped at the door. Kiwa could just make out the outline of the object in his nose when he showed his profile. This one is for you, he said, gesturing to the door. I can’t go in.

Her grandfather promptly reappeared in her thoughts, looking up from his devotional painting of numbers on the side of a miniature warplane, giving a stern glare. She wanted to tell him that tiramisu is a Japanese dish, just say the word a few times and you’ll know. The language and the cuisine and the world have changed, they are changing all the time, unforgiving grandfather, and I am reaching out and opening the door.

The door closed decisively behind her and she was in complete darkness but for a distant point of light ahead, towards which she began to walk. The metallic sound to the echoes of her footsteps suggested that she was in some kind of tunnel, an impression that grew stronger as the point of light by degrees expanded to a circle as she grew nearer. Her pace did not change. It’s all fun and games, Chiyo, she said to herself, and then repeated aloud a few times, a complement to the rhythm of her walking.

What was from a distance a blurry circle of light came into focus as an aperture and she could see beyond, through, out of the tunnel. She came to a halt when she realized that this was no doorway but a window; her outstretched hand pressed against a screen or lens of some kind, more than twice her height in diameter. And with astounding clarity she could see the polish on the silverware, the slightest crease in the tablecloth, as though it were all magnified and made more vibrant than anything she had seen before, and the extraordinary hand, how it managed the feat of engineering to so gracefully pick up the shimmering glass with its delirious ocean of wine, bring it up, up, up to the lips, perfectly timed to shape themselves to catch the downpour without a drop spilled. There was so much, so enthralling much, she did not know where to look: all of these gigantic movements, fluctuations in detail, arrays of differences between fractions of moments.

And the eyes, it took a little while (how long?), a long while, it took a while for her to see them as wholes, to distinguish one part and colour and motion from another, and as she did she saw them as she had never seen them before, being seen by them but not knowing what they see. Again and again they flashed directly at her, those curious eyes, at just where Kiwa was looking out, and she knew that she was trying not to be seen looking, eating her salad and smiling and regularly scrutinizing that point of observation where Kiwa stood, looking out.

She glanced back into the tunnel behind her, knowing that there was a door somewhere back there in the darkness, an entrance if not an exit, but it was only a glance, an unseeing glance, and she turned again to see what she would do next.

*

Tim Conley's most recent book of fiction is Dance Moves of the Near Future (New Star Books, 2015).

Photo credit: Alice Callas

Fiction #71: Sarah Roebuck

House Fire

There's a little girl in my Grade 2 class this year – Lonika. She must be seven years old. She has permanent braids tight along her head and beads to finish off each braid. She is black black black. I think her parents are  from Africa. They have that kind of accent, maybe. The boys in the class like Lonika. She is particularly close with Jake. Jake's mum is Ashkenazic, his dad is Sephardic. This is fascinating to me: two Jewish traditions in one family! This is not fascinating to my students; to them, these are arbitrary distinctions. Big deal.

During lessons, I'm up in front of the class at the chalkboard, trying to put on a good show, the kids are sitting in their designated spots on clearly laid-out taped lines on the carpet, and Lonika is rolling around. Other times she gets up, goes to her cubbie and pulls out her water bottle, leisurely drinks from it, and glances at my lesson from time to time. All while I'm trying to explain that, in French, nouns are feminine and masculine. The students think that is fascinating, but mostly just plain weird; Lonika, by the way, does not.

When the kids are at their seats, practising the principles I just taught at the board, Lonika finishes quickly. She comes over to me and complains that she's done already. I furrow my brow and say sternly, “Let me see your work.” She goes back to her desk and returns with her work. She shows me. All the answers are correct and written in a handwriting more beautiful than I could do, trying my hardest. She gets it, you see. She doesn’t struggle with anything I'm trying to teach this Grade 2 class.

During Self-Selected Reading, she reads with the boys: sports almanacs, superhero comics, astronomy books. The boys usually get more Self-Selected Reading Time because they finish their written assignments quickly. The boys tend to scribble, writing carelessly on the lines provided. The girls are perfectionists, so they take all day to finish one simple thing, their assigned sentences (two sentences) accompanied by elaborate princess and kitty cat drawings in full colour and detail.

*

Lonika has a rude way of interrupting, of answering questions without raising her hand. I punish her each time by showing her my displeasure. I must discipline her. But then, at home, in the school night evening, ravenous, eating dinner, I think, 'So what? Lonika's got stuff to say. Let her talk. Let her talk without raising her hand, without me saying: Yes, Lonika, you may speak now.'

Then, back in the classroom the next day, I forget my resolution, and I punish her again for speaking out without raising her hand. Like my students, I forget to be good.

*

Monday morning, I'm a little bit late going out to the playground to pick up my class for the day. The kids are in line, sort of, chatting and pushing, teasing and talking. One little Asian girl – Lilly  – she always has a story; she can't help herself: she's driven to say something unanswerable. (I punish her for that too, with my stern looks, my show of displeasure.)

Lilly says, “Miss! Miss! Lonika's house burned down over the weekend! Well, it's not a house, it's an apartment building, and the fire was so big that everybody living there is in hotels now!”

Lilly looks deep into my face and waits for my reaction. I look beyond her, pretending to think. Seeing no immediate response from me, Lilly hangs her head and looks down at the ground for dramatic effect (there is nothing there).

I look from Lilly to Lonika, who is three or four students from the front of the line-up. She is wearing her knapsack flopping off her shoulders, playing rock-paper-scissors with Jake, and she is laughing because she keeps winning, though there's no strategy. I'm thinking, 'Wow. Would a kid be at school bright and early Monday morning if her place just burned to the ground?'

This news is important because a) there was a fire; b) we know someone who is directly affected by the fire; c) there is some exciting relocation going on, a little camping-out; and d) the story is about an apartment building. This last item is noteworthy, because the families in this neighbourhood all live in single-family houses. Only some of the bussed-in kids live in apartment buildings. People who live in apartment buildings are automatically poor and should be pitied. Lonika, as it turns out, is one of the bussed-in kids, and is by definition, not part of the tightly-knit neighbourhood of house-living families whose kids all go to our school.

So this is a triple-whammy for Lonika: she is an outsider as a bussed-in kid, she is already pitied for living in an apartment, and now she has lost her lousy apartment. (But  a few moments after the first bell Monday morning, the kids have just learned that, really, an apartment is better than nothing.) She is also a visible minority – she is black black black, as I said  – but nobody says this out loud, because in these politically correct days, it is practically illegal to mention it.

I look back to Lilly, who is still dying to get a reaction out of me, and I say something like: “Oh, my my! That is terrible! That is terrible!  That is just terrible! Oh, my ...” Then I wave to the other nineteen kids and say, “Okay! Time to come in! Let's go!” and I lead them through the double doors, into the school corridor, to start our week together.

*

Well, I am walking down the corridor, it's the first recess of the day, and the principal pokes her head out to call me in to her office.

“Elizabeth! You must know already! One of your students – Lonika  – Lonika's house burned down over the weekend! Well, it's not a house, it's an apartment building, and the fire was so big that everybody living there is in hotels now!”

I catch my breath and the principal keeps talking. “Okay,” says the principal, crossing her legs the other way. She has already figured everything out.

“We'll give her lunches. We have ladies, we have parents lined up to make her lunches, and we have donations: clothes, non-perishable foods and toys and school supplies and everything this little girl would need.”

I know that the whole fire story is true because in a crisis like this, people feel a sudden need to be useful, so they go out and buy stuff that they know the kid doesn't really need, like school supplies. (The board has always provided school supplies for every kid from Kindergarten to Grade 8.) But Lonika'll take those pencils and erasers, because then it'll feel like a luxury.

*

The apartment building fire story is all over the news all week: first-person accounts, keeping track of families and interviewing them so the public readership can know what having a fire feels like and what it's like to lose everything. I feel proud of her: yes, she's one of my little girls. From Room 10. That's my class. She's so brave.

And all week I've been watching this little girl; I keep an eye on her, to get a sense of where she's at, a little protective, how she's feeling, what she could be going through.

And you know what? If no one had told me this little girl's world just burned down, if no one had told me this little girl just lost everything, I would've never known it. She still rolls around on the carpet. She still gets up in the middle of lessons and drinks from her water bottle. (She has a new water bottle, by the way; it is very shiny, and I think she's quite proud of it.) And she reads those Spiderman comics with Jake and she still gives me the whole same old, “Miss, I'm done my work” three minutes after I've assigned it. She is even on top of the ten weekly spelling test words. This little girl hasn't skipped a beat.

*

Today, I was writing out a list of verbs on chart paper and she finally comes up to me in a private moment, and I can see that she's in some kind of distress. “Miss, Miss,” she says. She shows me a paper cut just under her thumbnail. Her eyes are watery and puffy. Her bottom lip is quivering.

Now, teachers are supposed to be extra-vigilant and take every students' little wound seriously (for liability reasons, so the board doesn't get sued) and send them to the school office for ice or bandages; though often, I must confess, I look at the injury, brush the student off and say, “You're okay. Get back to work.”

But I bend down and lay a hand on her arm.“Oh, oh,” I say, and scrunch up my face next to hers. “Oh, you go to the office for that, honey. You go to the office and get yourself a band-aid.” She thinks about this for a moment, then shrugs her shoulders. “Okay,” she says.

Lonika goes to the office and and brings back a band-aid and gives it to me and I peel off the plastic for her and place it carefully on her little black finger. then it'll have served its purpose: a little attention from a grown-up. A band-aid is a little acknowledgement of pain. And for a moment, that's what Lonika wants; that's what kids want: they just want a little acknowledgement. And then they go off skipping, like this.

*

Sarah J. Roebuck earned an M.A. in Windsor, Ontario. Her poetry has appeared in Understorey (2016), Nashwaak Review (2014), The Antigonish Review (2014, 2002), The Maynard (2013) Dalhousie (2004), Other Voices (2004), the Lance (1994-1998) and Generation (1998). Her articles have appeared in Women Writing Letters II (Gailey Press, University of Toronto, 2014), Today’s Parent (2006), and ARC (McGill, 2000, 2002). She is a teacher and lives with her son, Ted, in Toronto.

Fiction #71: Leanne Simpson

Ribbons

It wasn’t so much a roadtrip as one day we all got in a car and tried to drive away from what was dragging us down. I said yes without knowing if Sheila and Mike were still together, and I guess I’m not much of a detective because we’re four hours in and I still can’t tell. I search for hidden meaning behind brushes of Cheetos-stained fingers and sips traded from a can of grape soda and find only the profound certainty that relationships are one of those grotesque things I like to examine from afar, like roadkill or belly button lint.

When I tell people I’m in a band with my neighbour and his girlfriend, I think there’s an unsaid pity that hangs in the air, like post-shower condensation or the last person at a funeral. I used to think it was because we were a three-piece, but I’ve recently come to the conclusion that my life choices are generally considered to be poor, that I should be investing in education instead of band logos and the only person paying in the end will be me.

Sheila wakes up first, asks if there are any more Cheetos left (I ate them all). I point-blank ask her if she broke up with Mike and she looks at me like I just ran over her dog. This is a roadtrip, she says. This is a safe space. She starts drumming on the glove compartment and I wish I could jot it down, maybe write an album on the road. I mention it to Sheila and she stops immediately. This is why we operate out of Mike’s basement.

I’ve known Sheila for about a year and a half now and she’s always had this energy like she could lift a tow truck off a baby in a crisis, except she’s almost always in crisis and no one ever calls her for help. I thought about it once but I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to pay her back and it would just be this thing held over my head until I died, at which point I wouldn’t have much use for the help anyway.

Sheila looks out the window when I ask about Mike’s dad. He’s better, she says quietly. Better is a good, safe word to use because it’s comparative – better than yesterday, better than Gord Downie, better than dead. It leaves you just enough hope to curl up into a white ribbon and pin to your chest.

I want Mike’s dad to be okay for selfish reasons, which include the following: he used to drive our band equipment around, I want Mike to stop smoking weed so Sheila will shut up about it, and I am uncomfortable with mortality. Those weren’t listed in any particular order, but when Mike wakes up and asks me to pull over for a toke, I get irrationally angry. He doesn’t pull the grieving card – which is still a work in progress – but I do it anyways because my head is somewhere back in Orangeville and it’s too late to turn around.

I have a bag of Cheetos tucked under each arm like a pair of footballs when I spot him sitting on the ground by the pumps.  Sheila’s in the bathroom so it’s a perfect opportunity to ask about the state of things. He is a much better source of information. We’re done, he says.

Far too late, I realize that my face is not configured into an appropriate position for this kind of conversation. Mike doesn’t seem to care, aims his rant at the ground instead. I told her it wouldn’t matter if she left again, like I don’t have enough on my plate. I nod at the wrong times. Secretly, I think he’s right – Sheila’s been leaving since she got here.

We don’t need her, I say, throwing an arm around him. There are plenty of good drummers out there. Mike turns to me and I can tell I’ve said the wrong thing – there’s a look on his face like I have spinach in my teeth but I haven’t had a salad in weeks, months if we’re being honest here. You’re incredible, he says, and I feel anything but. I don’t follow him when he walks away. For me, it’s always been about the music. It’s the best we could ever get along.

Mike and Sheila are deep in conversation when I get back to the car. I throw the Cheetos in the back and give them space, overhearing snippets like completely delusional and awkward breakup. I trust that they are discussing the impending end of their romantic relationship and not the gaping social error that I have committed, and wander towards the portable bathroom.

The voice finds me before I can place it – floats into my stall like dandelion seeds and settles deep in the pit of my belly. She’s not pitch perfect but she’s raw, like a worn-down piece of sandpaper from my old man’s workbench. I burst out of the outhouse and nearly tackle her to the floor. She is very clearly homeless.

Your voice is beautiful, I breathe into her ear. She looks suspicious so I take a few steps back. Where are you headed? She shrugs. Hopefully the city, she says. I drag her back to the car with me. Sheila and Mike are less-than-impressed with my unsigned talent, but they don’t move to stop me as I toss her wrinkled knapsack in with the Cheetos. It’s your car, says Mike. It’s your funeral, says Sheila.

Elsie used to play the accordion in a Ukrainian orchestra, but sings now because an accordion is too tough to carry around. We could use an accordion, I say. No one agrees with me. Mike and Sheila have struck an unsteady truce in the backseat, hands holding hands clenched around another grape soda. Things are improving.

This is what our sound is missing, I tell them. They don’t believe me so I get Elsie to harmonize with the radio until they too are nodding along. We’re still done, says Mike, but I don’t believe him either. Elsie passes out a half hour into the drive and we sit in silence, driving towards the next best thing to come our way. This is a roadtrip. This is a safe space. I think of Mike’s dad and the ribbon pinned to his coat and the ribbons in Elsie’s hair, and I wonder if this is as good as it gets – not better, but different. I never like it when a band adopts a new sound but maybe it’s better to have a new sound than no sound at all, and when we are this dangerously close to silence, it’s hard not to want to make noise.

*

Leanne Simpson is a mental health columnist and video blogger from Toronto, Canada. Outside of her advocacy work for SickNotWeak, she was recently named as an Emerging Writer of 2016 by the Ontario Book Publishers Organization. Her creative nonfiction has won multiple awards, including the Scarborough Fair International Creative Writing Contest. Leanne’s writing has been published in Matrix Magazine, PAC’N HEAT, The Citron Review, and What’s Your Story, Toronto. She is currently working on a memoir after completing a fellowship in the Master of Professional Communication program at Ryerson University.

Photo credit: Scarborough Fair

Fiction #71: Sandra Maxson

The Fire

As the house burned down, and she watched everything they’d gathered or made in their life together float first up on rising rivers of hot air, then down like flakes of powdery, grey snow, Jennifer felt a kind of lightness.

“Like the universe knew I need a new start, and sent it in this spectacular and ironic way,” she said to the paramedic. “It looks like it’s destroying my life, but it isn’t. The old is burning away to make way for the new.”

The medic wrapped a shiny, tinfoil sheet around her shoulders and told her she was in shock. Jen pulled it tight around her with her hands inside, smiling at her friend Beth. “Look,” Jen said, poking the blanket from the inside. “I’m popcorn! Pop! Pop! Pop!”

Later, sniffing a crumpled tissue because she was convinced her tears smelled like smoke, Jen thought maybe the paramedic had been right.

When Jen and Megan had parted ways, some weeks previous, the dissection of their life as a couple had been absolute. Megan had seized her new identity as Jen’s ex-wife and utterly relinquished attachment to the house and any of its contents. Still, Jen couldn’t help thinking Megan would want to know.

She answered without saying hello, just “Jen, it’s 3 a.m.” and a pause while she waited to hear if Jennifer was drunk, or if someone was dead. “Jen?” Jennifer could hear her getting ready to hang up.

“Hi Meg,” she said finally. It was all she could think of to say, the phone cradled tight to her ear, holding on against the overwhelming wave of loss. This is all that’s left, she thought, vague impatience and charred remains.

“Are you alright?”

“No,” Jen said. “Not really.”

Megan sighed, a deep breath weighted with irritation.  “You can’t just call,” she said. “At three in the morning for no reason.”

Of course she assumed no reason. “Sorry to bother you but the house burned down.”

“The house?”

Jen felt a rush of legitimacy, and a sudden, virtuous anger. “Yes, the house. I’m calling because you should know our house burned the fuck down.”

*

The coffee shop was almost empty. Having exhausted to topic of the house fire in the first minute (It started? Electrical. And everything’s? Gone, yes.) they sat across from one another trying to think up other safe topics.

“How’s work?” Megan asked finally. As long as they left out any mention of certain coworkers, work was a safe zone.

“Pointless.”

“You always say that.”

“Extremely pointless.”

“Quit then.”

“Yeah right. I have a mortgage, you know.”

They both stopped short.

“Fuck,” Megan said. “You still have to pay the mortgage?”

“No, I guess not.” They had been nothing if not well insured.

Megan’s gaze slid over the customer at the counter, focusing vaguely on the sandwich specials. A coolness settled between them, dull and lifeless as lake water. 

“I should go,” Megan said.

It’s not like she thought the fire would get them back together or anything, but Jennifer had expected more than this single coffee date from Megan. A place to stay for a few days, or some clothes. They were the same size, sort of. Not really, anymore, since Jen quit soccer. Well, shoes anyway. She could have offered shoes.

The café suddenly filled. A guy with a man bun looked pointedly at the empty cups on their table. Megan took the hint. “I’m heading home. You coming?” she asked, digging in her bag for her wallet. She looked up and saw Jennifer’s face, and said. “Oh shit. Sorry, I just meant, are you leaving now too.”

“No, of course. I didn’t think….”

“This doesn’t change anything.”

“No, I know.”

*

They’d bought the house originally for the family they were imminently to create. A donor had been found, a handsome theatre director content to be cool Uncle Rick. They planned simultaneous insemination, an idea that struck Jen now as analogous to those adolescent suicide pacts involving aspirin  – overly dramatic and ultimately ineffectual. First their cycles wouldn’t sync up (story of their life, really), then Rick withdrew. Meg lost her job and got a better one, and pretty soon the would-be nursery was a home office they couldn’t do without. Before they knew it, five years had passed and they had stopped talking about babies and, in fact, had more or less stopped talking altogether. Their therapist had suggested that Meg’s affair (hardly an affair, though, a drunken one night stand at a conference) had been a way to finalize the brokenness of the marriage. A corner turned that could not be unturned. Following that logic, Jen wondered if she – not fifty year old wiring – had finally found a way to end her belief in the possibility of reconciliation. You want over, Meg? I’ll show you over. I’ll light that fucker up.

Except it hadn’t worked.

Jen wandered toward the house (or what was left of it. The site, maybe she should call it). The bulldozers had come and gone; it seemed fast but the fire department had explained it was a hazard now, and she could be liable if someone went in and was hurt.

“Why would anyone go in?” she’d asked. She herself felt almost physically repelled by the sight of it, as if it were the burned remains of a body, not a building.

“Kids,” he’d replied. “Or people think there’s something to steal.”

“So if a thief hurt himself breaking into my burned out house to rob me, I could be sued?”

The fire guy said, “It’s happened.”

Jen doubted it but signed the work order anyway.

She got the insurance check, and then a realtor called and made an offer on the land. She agreed almost immediately. It’s not like she was going to rebuild a house. What did she need a house for? Beth pointed out a vacancy in the apartment building next door, and now she was single, with a new, empty apartment and money – a lot of it – and what felt, on one hand, like freedom but also, on the other, like a terrifying, unhinged variety of abandonment.

Her boss offered her time off to “help her deal with things.” The absence of routine was not, it turned out, helpful in the least. She lay on the mattress in her otherwise empty apartment and googled “forest stewardship” to read about the regenerative properties of wildfire. She found a lighter, and singed the hair on her arm. She began to scare herself. She began to wonder if 38 was too early for a midlife crisis, although this would suggest she’d live to 76, which struck her as more than generous.

She fell asleep in the mid afternoon and dreamed she had become anorexic. She woke up, tired and hungry, and went in search of something greasy to eat.

In the alley behind her apartment she stopped short, feeling a swift rise of anxiety before she even realized she was sniffing the air like a dog.

A rat ran past her leg and she jumped back. It stopped and looked up at her, and she realized it was a small, grey cat.

She inhaled. She smelled smoke but then again, she was always smelling smoke these days. She’d stopped saying can you smell that? to people around her. They couldn’t. It wasn’t there. She was going crazy.

The little cat meowed at her. It was scared to death, poor thing.

She crouched down slowly and held out one finger, the SPCA-approved cat greeting she’d learned as a teenage volunteer. He bumped his miniscule pink nose against her, permitting her finger to stroke his cheek. He was just a baby, she thought. She moved her hand slowly toward the back of his head thinking to catch him and turn him in to the local shelter for adoption. She reached her arm a little further and her bag swung down off her shoulder. The kitten bolted away, startled, and ran right under a rusted dumpster. Jennifer realized the smoke she could smell was real, and it was coming from the garbage bin. Which was up against her apartment building. And directly above the little kitten. Shit.

She looked around quickly, saw no one and nothing to help. She crouched down further and peered under the dumpster. He’d backed himself into a corner, wedged into a tiny gap between the wall and a broken bike frame. He mewed again, a high-pitched, anxious sound. She backed up and got down on her belly, ignoring the gritty concrete, and sniper crawled herself into the space between the bin and the brick wall. It was hot; the metal side of the dumpster almost, but not quite, hot enough to burn her. Jen’s eyes began to water and she held her breath, trying not to think about discarded needles or condoms or about the lung conditions that may result from the thick, putrid smoke of burning garbage. Her arm stretched, fingers grasping, finally catching him – barely – by the fur then adjusting and getting a better grip on his nape. She pulled and shimmied back, dragging him along until they were both clear.

She held him by the nape of his neck, his legs clawed wind mills, emitting a seemingly endless hiss of hostility for her efforts. She coughed and ran a grubby hand across her face and through her hair. Her hat dislodged and fell, landing upside down beside her. She put the cat down between her legs, keeping her grip on his nape. He contracted to a grey, matted ball, his belly tight against the ground, the hiss now a low, throaty threat. Jen held on in a protective restraint, knowing he’d dash off the moment she released him and feeling, in the space of those few minutes, responsible for him.

A man rounded the corner and she waved him over, coughing again. When he reached her, he crouched down, and put a handful of coins in her hat. “Here,” he said. “For some food for your cat.”

What the hell? “I’m a millionaire,” she said. Practically. If you rounded up.

“Of course you are,” he said, standing and brushing off the front of his jeans and carrying on down the alley. “Good for you.”

“That dumpster’s on fire,” she called, pointing. “Hey!” He walked on, not believing or bothering to care.

Jen reached around to her back pocket, working out her cell phone with one hand.

“9-1-1 What is your emergency?”

Life’s great multiple choice question. What was the nature of her emergency, Jen wondered. Abandonment? Neediness? Maybe, but first things first. “Fire,” she said. The kitten went quiet under her hand. “It’s a fire.”

*

Sandra Maxson is a writer and public servant. She lives and works on the west coast, dividing her time between Vancouver and Victoria BC, with her wife and three children.

Photo by My Girl Photography.