Monday, October 16, 2017

Fiction #75

New fiction! Issue #75
Submissions now open for #76!

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #75: Finn Harvor

Author's statement: This story ("Last Question of the Evening") speaks, I hope, for itself. It is set in a call center during an election when a conservative party is in power … and wants to keep things that way. However, the story also exists as a movie and is part of a larger project entitled PLASTIC MILLENNIUM. Links to the movie version of this story are below. I'm hoping people will check out the movie as well as the story.

Vimeo links (two parts)
https://vimeo.com/126326733 (pw: lastone)
https://vimeo.com/126785622 (pw: lastone)

*



Last Question of the Evening

Fade in.

An office comprised of cubicles, all of them lined in rows, as if the aisles of an airplane had been converted into office space. In each cubicle, a worker with a headset.

"They're all liars," a voice through one headset says.

The man conducting the interview, Anders, doesn't reply. He waits for the respondent to answer the question in the survey.

"Eh?" the respondent says, his voice charged with a coercive energy. "Whaddayou think?"

"A lot of people feel the same way you do, sir."

"That's right!" the man from rural Saskatchewan says. "They all go to Ottawa, they promise you the world, and then they do nothing."

Pause. Anders glances at the supervisors' station, eager to see if his call is being monitored. He can't make out the supervisors' screens.

"Sir, if you could please answer the questions as they're phrased, we'd get through this much faster."

Saying this is a mistake; not because the respondent is offended by Anders's chastisement, but because it suddenly makes him aware of how long he's been on the phone. "Good lord, mister! Lookit the time! We've been yammerin' for half an hour!"

"We're almost done," Anders lies.

"I can't be talkin' about all this sort of political nonsense for half an hour!"



"Please, sir. Would you just bear with me for another ten minutes?"

"Ten minutes?! Listen, I don't have ten minutes. I think I told you enough."

"Is there some time I could call you back at?"

"No. I'm real busy. I said enough. You just fill in the rest."

"I can't do that, sir." Now a note of pleading has entered Anders's voice. "I'll get through the rest of this really fast. If we don't finish it, then I'll have to throw the whole thing out."

"Am I gettin' paid for this?"

"Pardon?"

"Are you sendin' me money? I give you a lot of my time, I expect something in return."

"Sorry, sir, the company I work for hardly pays me anything, I don't think they'd be generous enough to start mailing cheques to all the people we interview."

This attempt to establish a sense of camaraderie falls flat. "I'm serious, mister. I gotta go," the man says.

The line is cut.

Anders lets out a deep sigh and swivels around in his chair. He first looks at the supervisors' station, then the clock. It's twenty to ten. An incredible exhaustion, mitigated by the proximity of quitting time, washes through him. He rubs his eyes and stands up.

Laura, one of the supervisors, casts him a condemning glance. Feeling guilty, then, an instant later, feeling with defensive pride that he does his fair share of work and deserves the occasional break, he walks over to the station.

"Cheques in?" he says. The question is virtually rhetorical.

Laura looks at him with her glassy, neutral eyes. "No," she says.

"They were supposed to be here at five," Anders says.

"Don't blame me. There was some screw-up with the payroll system."



"Yeah, well --." Anders bites his tongue. He simply says, "I need that money."

"You're not the only one." Laura smiles tightly. "They'll be in tomorrow."

"I'll be hungry tomorrow."

Perhaps Laura feels a touch of compassion for him. She regards him with full attentiveness. But then she says, "You should plan ahead."

Anders gives her a what's-that-supposed-to-mean? look, then turns away to make a trip to the washroom.

On the way back, he notices one the senior analysts behind the glass wall that separates the executive offices from the hall that leads to the teleresearch room where the interviewers work. The analyst is a bulky guy who's shaved his head bald and clearly works out. He has the aggressively friendly, somewhat sinister manner of a doorman at a night club. In front of him is a woman in a power suit.

Anders only glimpses all this as he walks down the hall.

When he gets back to his work station, it's twelve minutes to ten. Generally, this is just around the time when one of the supervisors begins walking around and telling everyone who's not on a survey to log off. Anders feels a contented relief. He figures he'll find a way to feed himself until tomorrow. He fingers the change in his pocket: his clinking life's savings.

At ten-to-ten, Jeremy, one of few consistently nice supervisors, begins walking down aisles. Anders stretches his arms. Then Jeremy's voice becomes audible. "Don't log off. We'll be working to ten. Even if you're not on a survey, keep dialling."

"But Jer-emy," a whiny voice says. "This survey is super-long. If we get someone now, we'll be here to, like, midnight."

"I'm just passing my orders along. I don't want to stay here any more than you do," Jeremy says. Then he adds, as if as an afterthought, "We're going to be starting another survey at ten."



"WHAT?!" a Jamaican woman named Celia says.

"I'm sorry, but that's the way it is. We've got a rush job from The Policy Group, and everyone has to work till quarter past."

The Policy Group isn't technically part of the company that Anders works for. Anders's company is called Windgate Research, and it's a pollster for the federal Liberals. The Policy Group has its office halfway down the hall between Windgate's executive suites and Anders's workplace. It in turn does polling for the provincial Conservatives. Both firms use the same interviewers.

Celia says loudly, "I SIGN UP FOR TEN, AND THAT'S WHEN I'M LEAVING. YOU WANT PEOPLE TO STAY EXTRA HOURS, YOU TELL THEM IN ADVANCE."

Anders listens to Celia with a distant kind of neutrality. He doesn't share her fury. Then he starts thinking about what's going on and gets angry not only because Celia has a point but because she isn't pin-pointing the exact nature of the way the truth is being spun.

The description of this survey as a 'rush job' is a misnomer; while it's understood that some surveys are more urgent than others, all of them need at least a day or two of preparation. If nothing else, the analyst who wrote this particular survey would have begun working on it early in the afternoon. There is no way management could have 'just' discovered it needed this survey done.

Then a more calculating, more cautious part of Anders's mind kicks in. He's been having trouble getting along with the supervisors lately -- even the normally genial Jeremy has been prickly. And Anders, a university student with post-grad ambitions, is too intellectually proud to put up with the low-level condescension which is routinely directed at the interviewers. He tends to snap back when criticized. He knows that he has a reputation for being difficult. If he were to stay for an extra fifteen minutes, it'd help him go down in the supervisors' good-books.

"Everybody log off," Jeremy says to the whole room. He repeats his message a few more times, like a portly town crier walking down a street of computers.

"You know what this survey's about?" Anders says to Michelle, the woman with no front teeth, who's sitting at a station opposite his.

She shrugs. "Maybe the teachers' strike," she says.

Anders realizes she must be right. It's early November, 1997 -- the strike has been dragging on for over a week. And the provincial government is starting to lose the battle of public opinion; simply that it has been holding off legislating the teachers back to work shows that it's scared.

Despite himself, like a true political junkie enzymes of excitement begin coursing through Anders's blood. It's like being a sports fan at a playoff: He wants to see what the final match up is going to be.

"The survey's number is 154," Jeremy announces. "This is manual dial. Please log on."

Anders begins reading the new survey. Any anticipation he experienced a moment before is evaporated by the sheer length of it; it contains over eighty questions.

"LOOK AT THIS!" Celia says. "THIS SURVEY LONG, JEREMY."

There are murmurs of agreement from her section of the room. Laura rushes over to quell the problem. She speaks to Celia, her voice inaudible.

"I DON'T CARE," Celia says. "THEM POLICY GROUP PEOPLE DO THIS ON PURPOSE. THEY DO IT LAST WEEK, TOO. AND WHAT ABOUT OUR HALF HOUR BREAK? WE WORKIN' FOR MORE THAN FIVE HOURS, WE'RE ENTITLED TO HALF ... AN ... HOUR ... BREAK."

"It's only fifteen extra minutes," Laura says. "You'll be paid for it."

Celia's tone lowers, but it's still adamant and clear with outrage. "That's not right. They're tryin' to nickel and dime us. They plan this."

Again, Laura's voice slips under the threshold of hearing. Anders turns back to his screen.

He's been phoning the West most of the evening. With its time differential, he hasn't had to worry about upsetting people by calling too late. With dismay he realizes he'll now be phoning metro Toronto, the most cranky and survey-harassed region of the country, at ten on a Tuesday night. He swears to himself. The questions keep appearing before him. Almost all of them are leading.... As was said earlier, the strike by the teachers' unions is illegal. Does knowing this make you more likely or less likely to support the provincial government's reforms to education?

"It's just another fifteen minutes," the interviewer sitting next to Anders says. He's a skinny skateboarder named Lance. He once told Anders that he ate one meal of eggs and bread a day for a week.

Anders looks back at Lance with an aghast expression. "Are you kidding?!"

Lance shrugs. He slouches deeply in his seat. "Just phone a coupla numbers. Look like you're workin'. Make 'em happy."

Anders's emotions shift very abruptly. Lance is right. Pretend to be a good employee.

But at ten sharp, a mutiny breaks out. People begin rising from their seats, starting first, it seems, with Celia. "I got a connectin' bus to catch," she says by way of explanation.

Hunger gnaws at Anders's stomach. He only had a can of sardines for supper. He was counting desperately on the pay-cheque. He figured after work he'd make a beeline to a bank machine, deposit his pay, then treat himself to dinner at a souvlaki place. Physical discomfort reminds him of how much he hates his company.

Despite his resolution, almost involuntarily Anders finds himself rising from his seat. He makes an extra show of lining up his keyboard neatly on his desk and putting on his coat with genteel calm.

"What are you doing?" Michelle says.

"I'm not staying. This is ridiculous. What, we're supposed to phone people now, and ask them a bunch of propagandistic questions for half an hour?"

"It's a job."

"Barely."

As Anders is walking towards the supervisors' station, the man who was in the front office -- the one with the bald head and fighter's build -- enters. He sees the mass of people huddled around the sign-out sheet.

"What's going on?" he says loudly to Laura.

"People don't want to stay. They signed up till ten o'clock, and they're leaving."

The tough bald man looks around him. For a second his expression is so similar to that of a captain trying to give orders to soldiers who are on leave that Anders wants to laugh. Then the man composes himself, and his face becomes a managerial mask.

"Everybody, could I have your attention!" he says loudly. "Everyone! Listen, this is a rush job. It's very important. We need you people to stay."

A number of the people milling around stop. Everybody seems temporarily frozen by this man's voice. Then a few people move discreetly towards the door.

"Listen, I know it's late, and I know you people want to get home. But we have to start getting results on this particular issue. Certain people -- important people -- need feedback, and they need something that they can start working with first thing tomorrow. So everybody, would you please ... just return to your stations. If we all pitch in, we can make a dent on this baby."

Some people seem to have been convinced by this man's manner, but no one actually returns to a station.

Seeing this, the man adds in a deal-maker's tone, "I'll give you a bonus."

The man is standing right beside Anders. Although the man isn't looking right at him, Anders can practically feel tendrils working their way out of him, as if he has thousands of microscopic hairs waving gently in the air, picking up people's opinions chemically.

"How much?" Anders says. His voice is steady, but he's surprised at how fearful he feels.

"Come on," the tough bald man is saying to everyone, clapping his hands together. Then he turns to Anders, his body language like that of an adult irritated by a child.

Anders watches as the man's eyes settle on his. They are disconcertingly focused; they are powerful and unblinking. When the man's mouth moves, there is the slightest of hesitations when he pronounces his first syllable. "Three bucks." 

The adrenalin that Anders experienced minutes before comes back to him stronger. "You've got to be kidding."

The tough bald man holds his hands out from his pockets as if to say: hey buddy, that's all I got.
Then the man says, "You think you're worth more?"

A voice in Anders's head tells him that he should back off. It tells him he's making a huge mistake, engaging in confrontation. Everybody else in the room knows this man's a jerk. Why say it to his face?

So Anders, thinking he's being conciliatory, says, "I'll do it. But yeah, I think I'm worth more."

"Let me tell you something about what you're worth," the man says. He holds up his hand, making a zero sign with his thumb and forefinger. "I could have you replaced like that." He snaps his fingers with startling volume. "Now you get back to your friggin' station or you take a walk out the door."

This is too much. Anders glares. "Maybe more than one person will walk out that door."

"What's that supposed to mean --?"

"People here are pretty sick of working for eight bucks an hour. We get no raises, no benefits, no consistent hours, and the company rakes in millions." Anders feels as if his nerves are exposed. He's absolutely convinced the man is going to hit him. He's startled; he thought he'd left this level of fear behind in high school.

"That's the industry standard," the man says. He narrows his eyes. "Pal."

"You got people here who don't even get enough to eat. You think that's a fair standard?"

The man looks at Anders -- he looks at the people nearby. He smirks. Most everybody is well-dressed.

A schizophrenic electricity fills the room: Anders is completely alert but also more tired than ever. He feels that everybody's attention is on him and nobody is with him. The other people all stand around, waiting. A horrible sense of defeat hovers on the fringe of his consciousness.

"What did you say your name was?" the man says. His voice is superficially polite, but it's edged with the appetite of an axe.

*

Finn Harvor is an artist, writer, filmmaker, and musician. He lives with his wife in South Korea. His work -- literary and academic -- has appeared in several journals including Poetry Film Live, This Magazine, Canadian Notes and Queries, Former People, Eclectica, and others. His author-made movies have been screened in Korea, the U.S., the U.K., and Greece, with upcoming screenings at the Athens Poetry Film Festival and the Rabbitheart Poetry Film Festival.


Fiction #75: Suzanne Bowness

Alternatives to Knitting

I hope I have enough room in my satchel. I’ve brought the pink patchwork bag, the one I used to store my wool when I tried to take up knitting. Stupid hobby. Takes days to make something you could buy for $10 at the store. Lainey tries to tell me that people hang on to the handmade things forever. I don’t believe in forever anymore. Roger, now there was a man who believed. Kept every ticket stub he ever bought. Every birthday card. And now who’s left to hang on to them? Me. He threatened to haunt me if I ever tossed them. So there they sit, in that stingy alcove they call a closet.

I reach in to feel the space inside the bag, and my hand disappears into its silky pink lining. All you can see is the creamy lace cuff of my blouse. Definitely ample. Last time I took my old black leather bag. Inadequate. Close call—I know I’ve gotten a little bold with practise. Can you really blame me? I mean I expected this to be easy but not this easy. Hell, I could start bowling melons down the paper products aisle, smash all the glass jam jars onto the floor and they wouldn’t even notice. Wouldn’t notice except to say, “aw there she goes the poor dear,—bet she keeps her knitting in that patchwork bag.”

As I pull my hand out again I avert my eyes and focus on the cottage cheese tubs in front of me. Cottage cheese: gross. The cafeteria ladies seem to think anyone over 60 must be crazy for it. In the mornings, it’s cottage cheese with yoghurt. Lunch is vegetable plate with cottage cheese. Dinner--well, let’s just say the lasagna is suspiciously cheesy. Most of them don’t give it much thought; they’re too busy gossiping or angling for the right table with the right people. Just because Gladys Earl wears those slimming pantsuits and by some miracle managed only to put on ten pounds to the standard twenty (okay, thirty) somehow she thinks that gives her dibs on the table near the window. And Hubert, always right there to pull out her chair, to slip her the Sudoku he clipped from his morning paper.

I hate looking at my hands now that they are wrinkly and veined. Roger used to say that my hands were lovely. Elegant, he called them. “Rose, you have elegant hands.” I’m sure he’d hate to see them now if he were still around. The sad thing is, I’m sure he’d love to see them.

Roger would not approve of Hubert one bit. But he’d approve of my walkabouts even less.  Not that it gives me a pardon, but Roger never did like this store when we lived nearby. Too commercial. We’d only come here for the specials and staples: tuna and canned soup and deodorant. Otherwise we shopped at George’s, the local market around the corner. I think Roger felt a twinge of disloyalty to George even with the occasional visit to the supermarket; they had been friends after 20 years in the neighborhood. But there’s disloyalty and then there’s a third off sirloin.

The light here is so sharp when it glints off the plastic. Burns my eyes. It’s almost blue, that light. My eyes lately aren’t what they used to be, well for that matter nothing is. Hair thinner, hearing harder, legs wobblier, boobs saggier. Even my wardrobe seems to be falling behind which vaguely depresses me, although not enough to spend a hundred and eighty dollars on a pantsuit. I heard that’s what Gladys paid. And just last week Sonia strolls in too wearing a powder blue ensemble. Just marched right over to Gladys for inspection.

I’m glad I decided on the patchwork bag, besides being larger it also blends in well. Non-descript coat. Grey scarf. A bit of shuffle. Grey hair, curly. Really playing up the old lady here. Shuffle in; grab a flyer and a cart. Be sure to leave the cart in produce and wander by myself over to the dairy section. Fruit is beginner territory. First the occasional sample right in the store. Once I even heard them, just barely. “The old lady is eating the grapes!” Then, “Relax, Joe, in her day that was probably what they did in her time. What are you going to, bust some old lady?”

After they walked away, I munched on a few more, then put a couple in my pocket. That was all that happened the first time. Two anonymous pale green globes rubbing against each other as I paid for my magazine at the front cash. Now, I know some would think I would have moved on to more expensive hauls by now: the pharmacy for instance. But it’s the anonymity I relish, the interchangeable objects, the green globes, the oblong nuts, the smooth brown discs with their sugary centres, all mingling in my pockets and my patchwork bag. Freedom. Liberated from their neat stacks and packages.

My legs are a little sore from walking. This store is further from the bus stop than I remember. But it’s far enough from the centre that I won’t see anyone I know. Everyone I used to know around here is likely dead. I haven’t lived in this part of town since Roger died. Still the usual mid-afternoon crowd though. New mothers with their screaming toddlers. Older mothers with their bodies beginning to sag as they chase after their coughing school-aged children off sick.  A senior or two. We blend in here. We try to ignore each other, too obviously members of the same grey haired, wrinkly skin and everywhere-sagging clan to really feel the need to associate.

That man looks like Hubert, only thinner and without the moustache. If you squinted you could imagine that lady trailing him to be Gladys. Although she’s probably ten pounds heavier. And without quite the same look of smug judgment as Gladys. Bitch. The more I think of her the more irritated I get. Four months ago Lainey and I used to be good friends. Then Gladys moved in. Now it’s all, “Lainey, we need one more player for bridge. Lainey, why don’t you show me how to do the purl stitch.” And Lainey just eats it up. I say, Margaret would have seen right through that. Friends on the inside are just not the same as the friends from before.

I look past the cottage cheese, locking in on my target. “She moves in.” That’s what Harrison would say, even at eight he’s already memorizing the scenes in those ridiculous cop movies his mother lets him watch. Harrison, what a nonsensical name, parents these days trying to outdo each other with their so-called creativity. But what do I know? I would never tell his mother, but those shows he tells me about are actually quite something. I don’t let on that I watch them but I’ve started tuning in to the program on Wednesdays with the blonde detective. I mean there are some real tricks revealed in those programs, places the ordinary mind does not naturally go. I wonder if real criminals study them too.

There, it’s in. One quick motion is how you do it, really. First the hover, then the twist. The tag comes off in your hand, that’s the fussiest part. I like to pocket the tag as a souvenir. They’re all over my cutlery drawer. But things have to move quickly now. The quick reach. Three plastic cylinders. Cool. Pliant. Inside my patchwork bag the one bag is moving anonymously now, liberated from its siblings, free and rolling around. Untraceable. I imagine sipping tea later this afternoon, pouring it in and watching it swirls around, warming my insides. Maybe I’ll invite Gladys and Hubert over to sample a cup, listen for them to ask for just a bit more when I fail to fill the pitcher enough. I imagine Joe or his dairy counter equivalent coming along later and trying to figure out the mystery. Two instead of three. A mistake at the processing plant? This is the largest I’ve liberated yet, and it’s taken three afternoons to work up the nerve. The raisins from four weeks ago now seem amateur by comparison. Maybe next week I’ll try the crackers, crinkly packaging be damned.

“But we’re not in the clear yet,” Harrison would say solemnly. Time to make my escape. As I head to the door, the middle-aged butcher nods his bald head indulgently and winks at me. I blush in a suitably old-fashioned manner.

*

Suzanne (Sue) Bowness is a freelance writer and editor who published her first poetry collection The Days You’ve Spent (Tightrope Books), in 2010. In 2006, she won the Ottawa Little Theatre’s National One Act Playwriting Competition. Sue is working on a collection of short stories and a novel. Keep an eye on her at suzannebowness.com

Fiction #75: M.W. Miller

The Foundational Banquet of the Four Cousins

The original names of the four cousins were Fred, George, Dave and Leo. They hailed from the four intermediate points of the compass, the northeast, southeast, northwest and southwest, respectively. But understanding that every unraveling begins in the south they early on converted to a strictly southern direction and discipline, and at length found it natural to adopt new and more imposing southern names.

So Fred came to be called Acharya Sunya; George, Pandit Non-dual; Dave, Rabbi Einsof; and Leo, the Philosopher of One.

And each became expert in a dead or nearly dead language, mutually unintelligible with any other. For each is built around the core of not-any-thing, and each not-any-thing is uniquely itself, though this could make no sense.

Now as fully realized sages, each in his own tradition, they sit down together at a last banquet, in a manner of speaking.

They call it sitting at a banquet, though they might as easily call it standing, since their sitting is so precarious.

And they call it a last banquet, though it might easily be called a first. But to call it a first would only invite speculation on the next, or controversy over whether this indeed was a first and not the reflex of some prior event. What they surely want to avoid is unnecessary argument, for they are all devoted to the one necessary. So they are radical in that respect, though they are all conservative in dress, right out of the oldest bazaar or the newest catalog.

The robes of the four cousins are in contrasting colours: the Acharya in white, the Pandit in saffron, the Rabbi in red and the Philosopher in black. But they are identical in cut and in material of identical gauge.

In the end, they cannot be distinguished, one from the other. And even to say that they either can or cannot be distinguished is a terrible diminution of who they are not.

Yet the four cousins are all very distinguished in the sense of being dignified. Their dignity doesn’t consist in this or that quality (which can’t be distinguished) but in a remote clarity. Their opaque expressions and manners of speaking render them transparent and unobstructed.

They trust each other, complicitly, but they don’t trust themselves. Everything they say or think can and will be used against them. Every sentence leads by some circuitous route to a snag in the river. The river clogs and the fields are flooded out of season.

They sit teetering on rickety folding chairs at the corners of a square oaken table, delicately balancing paper plates on their laps. The table is scarred by knife cuts from repeated carving. It’s scorched by cigars and matches, and smudged with melted wax. But though they freely maintain that they sit at a last banquet, they hold none of these marks as evidence of any banquet prior. No evidence is truly evidence, they all agree. All evidence is sign, and all sign points elsewhere and nowhere.

For they think it cruel to bind evidence down along a single axis, chaining one exhibit to the next against some thudding wall of fact, without adequate air and sunlight. They would give all evidence the freest range possible. And so they would give evidence its just due.

The table is covered with a variety of crystal vessels, glasses, beakers and pitchers in green, gold and red, much like a table set in the tent of royal patrons before a tournament.

Banners and pennants fly over such a tent, which is pitched between a small wood and the list. Sunlight pierces the tent as easily as it pierces the wood, illuminating the vessels on the royal table, as it illuminates the vessels here.

But unlike the royal table, the table of the four cousins is set nowhere that can be named. Still, the vessels are filled, identically, with nectar and with soma, doubly filled and overflowing.

The four cousins pour for one another as they pose their self-canceling arguments with an air of distraction. This air of distraction is the perfect medium for their purposes, communicating over space and time with little loss of intent or meaning, in the utmost cool.

But their frail arms, making all signs and mudras as they lift, pour and pass along, badly negotiate the tangle of vessels, tipping some, chipping others, shattering a few and spilling soma and nectar across the table. Shards of glass glitter as they fall, sound like chimes, and from some nowhere two servants arrive to clean up and reestablish order.

The servants are a former lady and her knight, recently fallen from their higher stations, but still a fresh and handsome couple who wield their rags with dexterity. They sweep up the shards and reset the table, though they jumble the original arrangement of the vessels they replace.

The banquet temporarily and roughly reordered, they withdraw behind a screen at the foot of the table (which has no foot) and chastely undress. They produce a wicker throne. A peacock perches on its back. Intimately, they mount the throne, the lady astride the knight’s lap, fixing eyes to eyes and then lips to lips.

The knight’s profile is strong, honest, and noble. The lady’s generous lips and true-hearted eyes are even more beautiful in the candlelight, framed by a nebula of black hair.

Murmuring in the first language, or the last, they recall their long pilgrimage through a countryside of lakes, hills, heaths and unexpected deserts, through woods ruled by monkeys and bears, through villages of sly peasants and comical monks, through manor houses of masters, gurus, priests and holy courtesans.

Their path is uncanny but clear through the woods, across the landed estates, through the villages, the inns and tea houses, through the multiform streets and neighborhoods of the capitol. They lose each other across the fields, down the streets, in the crowds, down the hallways, and find each other in disorder and disaster, in happy encounters by temples broken in sunlight.

Wherever they come to stand or sit, in the woods, on the mountains, along the river, on the list beside the woods, a vast tent rises up unaccountably as a refuge, as now it rises over the table of the four cousins, next to the small wood by the enormous field, a tent secure against the rain but with openings all around for the peering in of sheep and cattle and, planted in support at each corner, a frailly-limbed willow tree.

*

M.W. Miller is a Vancouver writer. He lives inside a hat.

Fiction #75: E.D. Morin

Black Currant

We share a bus seat — me with my grubby backpack jammed against my knees, her with her Chanel knock-off tucked beside her. I have the window. She has the aisle.

Where you from? she asks.

Here, I tell her, skirting the truth. You?

Up north, she says. Goin’ home.

We say nothing for a while and the bus lurches past sun-reflected towers, up Edmonton Trail, past houses and apartments, past diners and a tire shop and that building painted a piebald cow pattern, past more houses and down into the industrial section. The driver hauls at a good clip — until a hard, controlled stop throws us both against the seatback in front of us and the air brakes blast.

Bull nuts, my seat companion says. She rescues her bag off the floor.

I smile and take in a little more of her. Early twenties? Nothing too remarkable, jeans and a ruffled sleeveless shirt that could have come from Sears. Decent haircut, smidge of eye goop and all in all more fashion sense than I’ll ever possess. Seems that no matter how often I go to the mall or thrift shops with the intention of buying something pretty, I always come home with cargo pants and another boring plaid shirt. Force of habit. Lesson drilled into me early. Think you’re so special?

Turn and gaze out the window, and I realize how much dread I have about this bus ride. Or not so much the bus ride as the arriving at the other end. Home. Is. Was. At the other end hangs a series of tearful long goodbyes, the way my family prefers them. Inevitable is the gathering at my parents’ front entrance before one or the other of us departs, that momentary scuffle to retrieve boots or bags or coats from the hallway’s hard, red tiles. An embarrassing incident will be alluded to, something suitably squeamish. The time Maddy threw up at the kitchen table. The time Yvon baked his nefariously bad pound cake, the result of muddling the sugar and salt tins, and then confusing ginger with powdered garlic. Or when I fell off a chair waiting with our mother at the bank, and I bled all over the place.

Up to her usual antics. Never could sit still, haha.

Good natured on the surface, yet somehow giving a sensation of ants crawling under my collar, ants up my sleeves. And this time, the goodbyes will be especially tortuous and drawn-out knowing that once I walk out our parents’ front door I’ll be gone for a long stretch.

Up north. Goin’ home.

Turn to my seat companion. I say, how far north you live? And by the way, I’m Clod.

She squints. Clod is your name?

Short for Claudine.

Her eyes sprout crinkles. She puts out her hand, says her name is Paulina Georgina. Great grandma calls her Paulie, but only her. Usually, though, she goes by PG.

Nice to meet you, Paulina Georgina.

Tell me about it. And the crinkles spread. A charmer she is.

How far north is home? I say.

Pretty far. Fly in only. Hamstring Lake it’s called. You hear of it?

I nod-shake my head, tell her I’ve heard the name, but don’t know much about the place. So — I continue, pausing to rearrange my thoughts, to consider my own complicated relationship with home — you live there now? Or just used to?

Live, used to. Same difference. Can’t get rid of the place if I try.

Paulina opens her purse, sifts inside and retrieves a pack of smokes, slides one out, holds the tip to her nose, inhales.

She catches me observing her. — What?

I can’t help it, I glance at the No Smoking sign above the driver.

She shoves the cig back in with its cellmates. — You ever eat black currants, Clod?

Think so? I say. My mind wanders to that time near my parents’ house, eons ago. The bushes along the ravine where I picked a handful of small, dark berries, so sour my eyes watered when I bit into them. Maddy freaked out, shouted they were poisonous. Said I needed to be rushed to the hospital and have my stomach pumped.

Never did get sick, I tell Paulina.

And I recall the perfume of warm berries. The sourness.

Yup, that’s black currants, she says. It’s why I smoke these. Tobacco reminds me of the smell of home. The leaves do, you know? But I can tell you’re not a smoker, probably paid better attention to those cancer warnings. All that cancer talk didn’t go anywhere with me. Once tobacco gets a hold, it’s hard to smother the craving.

I took up smoking when I was seventeen, I say. Only lasted one summer. The craving still comes occasionally. Bad habit in other ways though, since I bummed all my cigarettes off friends. Reason I quit is because people stopped lending me smokes.

Lend, she laughs. Good one.

I laugh too and my dread eases a bit. Paulina organizes her earbuds, fiddles with her phone and we ride along in silence. Out my window the fields are scattered with round hay bales wrapped in protective plastic that give the bales the appearance of supersize marshmallows. Marshmallow fields forever.

Up north, high above the Arctic Circle, there’s tundra and coast and no marshmallow fields. My destination tomorrow. Leaving 0800 hours. In the baggage compartment of our bus is my massive MEC duffle bag, and the rest of my stuff? In storage bins at my ex’s. So this is it, my somewhat clean break. Renewable energy technician at a radar station up north, the pay outrageous, at least on paper, but when you factor in the high cost of living in the remote north, nothing to write home about. Still, a heck of a lot better than any unpaid internship, which is all I can get in Calgary in this stupid economy. Also, a lot better than my ex’s spare room with his treadmill and dumbbells.

Stop gazing out the window, nose through my backpack, locate the book I brought.

Trust me to want to learn about the next episode of my life from a history book. A report on the Distant Early Warning line, sixty-three radar stations extending high across the continent, high above the Arctic Circle. The DEW line, a doe-eyed, euphemistic name for a military defence tool intended to ward off hostile attacks — the hostiles of the day being the Soviets. The original stations were designed to detect incoming Soviet bombers, but then ICBMs came along. Intercontinental ballistic missiles. Adjustments were made, the stations brought up to snuff even as the paint was drying. All very informative. But what did people do up there?

Who were the labourers who built the stations? The operators who maintained them? And the local Inuit — were they hired as guides? As operators? Next to me, Paulina gazes ahead, hums quietly, drums on her knees. A neon rainbow feather dangles from each ear.

Chapters about the scientists who commissioned the DEW system, highfalutin members of parliament and rubber stampers who took all the credit. Chapters that focus on the science behind radar systems too, which is fascinating but hilariously old-fashioned considering today’s real-time satellite tracking and lightning speed data crunching capabilities. Another chapter deals with the cold war landscape long before Perestroika. And the northern climate itself, references to permafrost, frozen equipment and system failures due to extreme temperatures. Nothing about the Arctic Cordillera or coastal tundra or polar bear or caribou.

I’m not running away. Everyone has a right to their opinion, of course.

Paulina catches my gaze as we pass the Bowden refinery. Closed recently. She removes her earbuds, asks if I work in oil and gas.

Used to, I say. Embarrassed a bit, like it’s a dirty secret. I’d rattled a few guys’ cages taking that job, bilked some male out of his rightful position. And for a while it was perfect. Odour and grind of metal on grease, clean concrete floors, the orderliness of it all. But as much as I tried to shuck off my gender, even a tomboy like me could only rankle like a goose-egg. Certain of my A-hole fellow operators wouldn’t stop harassing me. They wouldn’t shut up.

Good money? Paulina asks.

Good money, but I blew away most of it on big trips. New Zealand, South Africa, Patagonia. Let’s just say it was a good gig until it wasn’t. So, I quit and went back to school and shifted into renewable energy. Good move overall, easier to sleep at night, but I’ve yet to make any money at it. Course, oil and gas isn’t so lucrative anymore with these low barrel prices. It’s been, what, three years?

Paulina gives me a funny look. Guess so, she says.

Sensing I’ve strayed into chest-deep muskeg, I shift gears.

Tell me about Hamstring Lake. What’s it like up there?

She giggles. Paradise, if you don’t mind the black flies. Seriously, though, it’s way easier to grow a garden up north. Abundance of daylight. Cabbages as big as babies, bushes dripping with black currants.

What do you do with the black currants?

Pie is best. You ever make a black currant pie? No, I can see you haven’t. Let me tell you, what a production.

I smile. How’s that?

First there’s the crust, then there’s the dealing with all the tiny seeds. Paulina laughs. Honestly, the berries are too small to pit, so you gotta cook them first and mash them and then pick out the seeds one by one. Reminds me of trout fishing. So mind-numbingly dull you want to jump off the boat, but then you learn patience and after a while gain a rhythm. Enough people around, sisters, grandmothers, the occasional boyfriend, it’s not so bad.

A pie party.

Paulina nods. With everyone laughing and working, it’s easy to forget how many shitty seeds you’ve got to fish out.

At the Red Deer off-ramp, we trundle east and then north to the local transfer point, a mandatory fifteen-minute stop. When we pull in, Paulina bounces off the coach for a smoke. I head to the restroom at the depot and splash water on my neck. My sister keeps asking me, why north? Since when is Nunavut on your radar? I know what Maddy wants. She wants me to stay in Calgary and patch things up with my ex.

The bus rolls onto the highway and I flip to the last chapter of my book, all about the legacy of those radar stations. Contaminated soil, hazardous waste, toxins like lead, PCBs and asbestos. Released into the fragile northern ecosystem, persisting in animals, in fish stocks, in the ice. The clean-up process continues to this day.

I close the book and stow it inside my backpack.

My brother Yvon keeps emailing me facts about the north: which parka to buy, vitamin D supplementation, hydroponic gardening, setting up time-lapse shots of the aurora borealis. But what will I find when I get up there? What if it’s just more A-holes, more guys who think they have all the answers? What if I find I haven’t learned a thing?

I blame my family. Even now, at family gatherings, it’s like we don’t talk about shit. We hide the ugly parts. We don’t admit how much pain we’ve caused. We’re stupidly ignorant, even as the evidence of our wrongs mounts around us.

For the rest of the bus ride, Paulina Georgina and I don’t talk, and I’m envious all at once of those pie parties. Steady rhythm of that mundane act. Picking seeds out of the berry mash, little by little improving the pie for everyone.

Lend, I say under my breath. And she stares hazily past me out the window.

*

E.D. Morin is co-editor of Writing Menopause: An Anthology of Fiction, Poetry and Creative Non-fiction (Inanna Publications, 2017). For over twenty years, she's been exploring the intersection of science, wilderness and human shortcomings. Her writing has been published in Pank Magazine, Rum Punch Press, Fiction Southeast and The Antigonish Review, and produced for broadcast on CBC Radio.

Photo credit: S. Wakefield.

Fiction #75: Robert Hilles  

A Trick of the Brain
            
I was at the kitchen sink when my father lit his hands on fire. It looked like a trick at first. But everything moved so quickly. First my father’s hands were on fire and then I was on fire. And then the kitchen was on fire. My father had mistakenly used gasoline instead of fuel oil to light the stove.

“Jesus,” my father said, although not religious man. Then, “Robert hold the door open,” which I did.

An October gust blew flames everywhere. He and I were on fire and shook from the cold.

“Jesus,” my father said again and I screamed.

My mother hurried my sister, brother and I out the bedroom window. Then she went back to help my father fight the flames with coats and blankets. And for a few minutes my sister, brother and I huddled together outside terrified that both our parents would perish in the fire. But they got the fire out. My father’s hands were badly burned, but he drove us twelve miles to the hospital in Kenora. He didn’t say anything all the way there. My mother was silent too. Us kids sobbed in the back seat.

He carried that guilt for many years.

I never held him responsible and thought him brave in fact. But I never told him that and now I wish that I had. He would have liked to hear that. Would have liked to know that it made me love him more.

For years I thought everything was held together. Whole. But now I see it’s always coming apart, never finished or complete. Chaos breeds more chaos and only the small details are orderly. Molecules, particles, yet they too burst out of control make fire, wind, and rain. Become dangerous one moment or veer off at some odd angle. Fire is caused by one molecule being attracted to another.

Later at the hospital we were sent to different rooms for treatment. Only my father and mother went home, his hands and her legs bandaged. He went to work in the next day.  Every evening for the next two weeks he visited me in the hospital. He sat in the chair beside my bed. He’d already figured a way to hold a cigarette despite the bandages.

He said little between puffs but always rubbed my head with his bandaged hand before he left. When I think of my love for him I think of those visits and how we didn’t speak and yet we were as close as we’d ever be.

*

Robert Hilles won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry for Cantos From A Small Room and his novel, Raising of Voices, won George Bugnet Award. His second novel, A Gradual Ruin, was published by Doubleday Canada. His books have also been shortlisted for The Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Prize, The W.O. Mitchell/City of Calgary Prize, The Stephan Stephansson Award, and The Howard O’Hagan Award. He has published fifteen books of poetry, three works of fiction (including A Gradual Ruin) and two nonfiction books. His latest poetry book, Line, will appear in the spring of 2018. He is currently working on a short story collection called, Little Pink Houses and a novel set in Thailand tentative called, Our Silken Finery.

Photo credit: Rain Hilles.

Fiction #75: Tonya Walker

The Creative Planner

There are really no male editors in women’s magazines. People will tell you it’s because a man cannot truly understand a woman’s perspective. Bullshit to that say I. No man would stand for being paid in glamour and sample sizes they had to Atkins to fit. Actually, there is one man, but he did fashion and beauty for a prominent newspaper, so he doesn’t really count. The papers pay better. Still David is a character. That’s what we all say with an indulgent insider smile, ‘David is a character.’ What we mean is David is a rotund, gay drunk channeling Truman Capote - the bitter years. Mean as a 43 year old ex-wife kicked to the curb after 20 years of marriage. I actively dislike him. I applied for his position when he made his leap to FashionGate, Canada’s newest magazine at the time. I would have gotten it too, had he not chimed loudly about my lack of style - this from a man who sports denim pregnancy overalls and a Gap T everywhere.

I do lack style. It’s true. I love it, but lack it. I wear black from head to toe all the time. My feet are shod in black Bass Weejuns and my backpack is a sturdy black leather Roots bag. Black is the new Black, Again. This is not original, everybody’s done it, it requires no information or preparation, it never feels wrong and it never feels right. It is the absence of style and it pleases me.

My style epiphany happened over two decades years ago, I was still working for Maclean-Hunter as associate editor, and had been offered the job of managing editor for Vida. It was to involve relocating to the city of Angels. Vida really wanted me which was flattering, and the idea of really shooting real women rather than models and  not just giving lip service to the idea was exciting. Still I viewed myself as far too caustic, fat and Canadian to be Californian. So before accepting the position I went on a job interview as a copywriter for an Ad boutique at St. Clair and Young. That’s advertising-speak for a very, very small ad agency with three or fewer accounts. The ‘boutique’ part is supposed to make civilians think that the agency is tiny by choice. They supposedly have too much integrity to prostitute themselves by growing to an unwieldy, overpriced size. This is all very impressive until you realize that advertising by its very nature is corporate prostitution at it's purest. Big or small, a 'ho is a 'ho. Not that I'm judging.

Anyway, in ‘98 I enter the building on Young Street to interview for this ad-writer job. The boutique shared space with a behemoth ad agency it supposedly hoped never to emulate. The boutique rented a floor. I press number four in a thoroughly ordinary faux wood-finish elevator. I dressed carefully for the interview. I avoided the whole black thing because at that point in my life I still viewed it as tired and cliché. It was summer in Toronto which is my favorite fashion season because one can dress well cheaply, no coats, blazers or cashmere cardigans required. I was wearing a sleeveless ivory cotton knit top and high-waisted wide-leg ivory trousers and feeling utterly Hepburn a la “High Society”  - well Hepburn after she’d eaten a huge lunch anyway - and some really fabulous next-season shoes I’d scored from the fashion closet at work. They were pointy-toed and kitten-healed, very new - remember this was years ago. People were still adjusting to the square-toed flat when fashion dictators somersaulted and proclaimed pointy for next season. The elevator stopped at the agency’s floor, the door jerked open and I entered into the rarified atmosphere of the ‘boutique.’ The air had that sucked clean scent distinct to ad boutiques and designer shops on Bloor.  Fragrances, cleaning supplies and pedestrian sweat were all ionized neatly away. I looked around for a receptionist or even a place where one might sit. Neither was to be found.

In the center of the deserted space was a large oval boardroom table lodged in a glass bubble. A video camera pointed directly at the table. The whole set-up looked rather Jetson-like. The bubble was attached to a black wall at the back. At first it wasn’t apparent where one entered the glass bubble. I rolled my eyes in exasperation. It is just possible that ad folks were more self-consciously hip than fashion editors. Mid-roll I caught sight of another video cam to the side of the elevator.

I decided to face it head on and say, “Really?” and then I smiled brightly and added, “A button, a password, a hidden key, a broken stone tablet that fits perfectly with another hidden in the wall? Even Frodo had a clue,” I intone brightly keeping my mouth corners up like my Buddhist buddies tell me to do in a crisis of confidence. “Shall I simply stand here while you watch?” I tried to keep the irritation out of my voice, my tones light. A few moments passed as I stared down the video cam, then the black wall at the back of the bubble slides open like department store doors and a girl dressed completely in black scurries out, a big apologetic smile pasted across her face. She waves and says something I can not hear. She presses a button on the table and the bubble cracks open, literally, like an egg, each jagged side pulled back three feet, revealing a six-foot wide entrance. She begins again, this time with sound.

“I’m sorry I can’t believe . . . someone was supposed to be out here to meet you, uh, Leslie Gulch right?” She is quite pretty but visibly flustered. Her hands flutter to smooth her already smooth waist-length braid. Her bangs are cut in a precise dark line straight across her forehead an inch and a half about her brows I estimate. Her exceptionally lovely eyes save her face from looking like a Bedlam inmate with such a severe hairstyle. I wonder idly if she has any head shots I could take back to the magazine. We haven't done a feature on bangs in a long time.

I hold out my hand to her. “Yes I'm Leslie” She takes it and forgets to introduce herself.

“And uh, we, uh, I mean, we weren’t really watching you, the guys, the creatives,” she shrugs conspiratorially. “You know, how creatives can be,” she caught herself and laughed awkwardly,

“Well, sure you do, you want to be a writer, right?”

“Well, I …” I blush for her stupidity and paused, “I am a writer, I’m Associate editor at Femina.”

Her smile became even wider, till her eyes scrunched completely closed. “Of course, I didn’t mean, well, you know, you want to be a copywriter.”

I smile politely and nod. Informing her that a magazine writer writes copy too would’ve seemed pedantic and only encouraged further stretched smiles that I feared may land her in the next Batman movie as the updated Joker.

Instead I offer, “Cool bubble.”

She nodded, a slight apologetic smile returned to her face, “Maximillian designed it himself. In fact, this whole non-receiving reception area was his idea.”

I looked at her expectantly, wondering if she was as aware as I that we were being watched.

She motioned for me to follow her through the egg, as she continued, “He felt the idea would be more democratic, this way no one in the company is more subservient than anyone else, we all have important jobs to do and really anyone can show you into the agen…I mean boutique.”

I was puzzled. This ‘boutique’ seemed more prankish frat house than potential workplace. “Shouldn’t you have a buzzer then so a visitor can let you know that they are here, surely that would be easier than having someone waiting or not waiting for someone to arrive, 'cause wouldn’t the waiting person be, well, waiting, and therefore subservient to someone?”

She frowned non-committally, “That’s a perspective.” I looked at her sharply, searching for sarcasm, or at least irony to accompany her comment. Nothing. We walked through the hole in the wall into an entire black and white workspace. Black circles of all sizes graced the walls. The ceilings were black with white inspirational quotations punched through, signed and dated by Maximillian. The carpeting was an ironic zebra stripe. Again I thought, ‘Really?’

I decided to make a joke, “Let me guess, the people provide the color.”

She swung around and looked at me as if I’d just won the spelling bee and an Emmy: “Yes! Exactly! That’s what Maximillian says all the time!” Her eyes were wild with enthusiasm; as far as she was concerned I was finally getting it. I sighed, trying very hard not to despise Maximillian pre-introduction and failing. White ¾ dividers curved around the space housing desks and computers. No one seemed to be working; toasters flew across every screen – the original funky screen-saver now 12 year olds consider old school.

“Is it lunchtime?” I asked, looking over the vacant spaces.

“Oh we don’t have a lunch time, people come and go as they need to. Maximilian doesn’t want to be responsible for people’s gastro-intestinal issues.”

“Is that code for hunger pangs?” I joked, trying to detect any evidence of a sense of humor.

“Yes. After all we’re all adults here.” As if on cue a noisy shower of orange Nerf bullets erupted from around a curved divider.

“Got ya!” whooped a bespectacled, pimply twenty-something to my guide.

“Not play-ing!”she responded in an exasperated voice. Trying to brush past him, he touched her shoulder lightly. As she shook him off he said,

“Is Kiko bitchy? Are you like on the rag, dude?”

My eyebrows must have shot up to my hairline. I looked at my guide, Kiko, in astonishment, her pale faced tinged pink. “Did he just say that?” I asked. Nerf-boy looked at me, shrugged and reloaded. I waited for an explanation.

“Maximillian doesn’t like to stymie impulses, the creatives are encouraged to be who they are and say what occurs to them. We can use it all; it’s all good.”

I turned to the creative nerf-dude, “Where is everyone?”

He gestured with his gun to an area over the dividers, “In the bullpen.”

“Why aren’t you there then?” I questioned.

“Don’t wanna be. Need to play.” He responded. I nodded as he wandered off, obviously bored with me.

“Kiko, how many women work here?”

“Five.”

“How many men?”

“Including Maximillian, twenty-one.”

“How many women are creative?”

“One, but I know what you’re thinking, Maximillian is always trying to hire more female creative, it’s just, well not many make it through the hiring process.”

“Why do you think that is?” I spoke slowly, feeling my way. This whole place felt like one big cult and I had this overwhelming urge to wrap my arm around Kiko’s bitty waist and save her from the Kool-Aid. She looked at me contemplatively, as if the question had never really occurred to her and answered with great seriousness.

“You know they’re not really sports, they um, well. . .”

“We,” I interrupted.

“Huh?” She looked confused.

“We, you and I are women too, we are not really good sports according to his Maxness. How many women are account executives?”

“Oh, none, I mean we don’t have account executives, we have creative planners, everyone is creative here. We’re a wholly creative shop.”

“Holy creative shop is right,” I muttered.

“Two of the women are planners and the other two are traffickers.”

“And you?”

“I’m a trafficker, I chaperone a piece from creative to Maximillian – you shouldn’t really shorten his name by the way, he prefers we all address him in the same manner, that way no one feels greater intimacy than anyone else - there have been jealousy concerns in the past – then I pass it back to a planner, then a client, back to a planner, then Maximillian, then creative again.” I was finally beginning to hear the rustle of people and paper One voice was speaking louder than the rest.
I lowered my voice, “Sounds like Maximillian’s a real hands on guy.”

Kiko nodded, “He personally approves every piece of work that flows through this agency.” She’d pasted her big eye-crinkly smile on again. We’d arrived at what I assumed was the ‘bullpen.’ It was a fairly large curved space surrounded by wide counters laden with papers, pens, and cutting boards.

While more art directors worked on Macintosh computers now, old-fashioned cut and paste directors could still be found in most ‘shops.’ And since Maximillian himself had been a cut and paster and was (shhh) computer illiterate, there would always be a place to play with crayons in his 'boutique.'

Several people perched on the countertops not covered in paper. Kiko and I waited quietly until Maximillian finished speaking and she caught his eye. I noticed two televisions on the top shelf of a side divider. One displayed the boardroom, the other, the place I’d been standing in: the non-reception area. I breathed deeply; glad I hadn’t picked my nose or adjusted my panties outside the bubble for all the bullpen to witness. Already a magazine for teenage girls seemed a far more professional pursuit than this Chuck E. Cheese for adults. Still, I shouldn’t judge, I hadn’t spoken to the great man himself.

He turned to us, “Well how did you like being on television, Ms. Gauche?”

“Gulch,” I replied, “As in riverbed. Television’s great, though I’d prefer to write for it rather that guest star.” I dusted off my prom smile, it didn’t fit properly anymore, it didn’t even reach my eyes.

“You seem to be a fan.”

“An excellent medium, especially when people are caught unaware. Would you like something to drink? Kiko please bring us some blue water.  Annie will be joining us; she is one of our planners. Do you understand about planners?”

I nodded, “Creative planners instead of ad executives because everyone is creative here.” I saw Kiko smile as she scurried away to fetch blue water whatever the hell that was.

Maximillian looked pleased: “We do not hide our creative people from the clients; rather we show them off in all their brilliance. Annie, let’s go to the boardroom.”

Annie led us back to the bubble. I guessed his Maxness liked to play to the camera. Annie was a skinny 27 year old and with short white Madonna hair (circa 1992) and very pale, pillowy lips. She was dressed all in white with a very square-toed white Gucci loafer gracing her foot. I guess she let the other creatives add the color. I glanced down at my outfit and felt stuffy, even my fabulous shoes did not seem right anymore. In this arena where these folk seemed so smug in their hipness my next-season pointy-toes didn’t count, you can only get credit for what people are aware of it.

I couldn’t think of a graceful way to work into the job interview: “I just want you to know that I’m so fashionable that my shoes are next season.” Or better yet, “Square toes are sooo over, oops I didn’t mean yours.”

Chic Annie indicated with a sweep of her elegant melanin-free arm that I take the chair across from hers. His Maxness sat at the head of the table. I placed my portfolio on the table and began unzipping it. My zipper jammed at one corner, as I was tugging Chic Annie coughed. I looked up automatically to notice Maximillian holding his hand up in the air in a ‘Halt who goes there” manner. I raised an enquiring eyebrow at Chic Annie.

“Why don’t we get to know each other first?” She suggested smiling apologetically at both Maximillian and I. What she was apologizing for I’m not sure, his bizarre inability to vocalize his desire, or my bizarre inability to both open my case and read his mind. I sank down into the black-clothed chair. Maximillian stared into space, his eyes narrowed as if his second sight had just kicked in and he didn’t want to miss a thing and Annie looked at me pleasantly – half smile, benign eyes, and expectant cock to her eyebrows. My instincts were to wait it out, but I felt too nervous so I waded in. Bad idea. Bad, bad idea. When I get nervous I either use too many words to describe mundane thoughts or forget how grammar works in the English language. I decide to address my comments to Chic Annie and leave her boss to continue exploring Planet Max.

“So Annie, how long have you worked here?” I aped her pleasant expression, imitation being the highest form of flattery.

Annie looked at Maximillian before answering, and then answered carefully, “One year. Working with Max has been such an honor.”

Oh Lord, I thought, slit my wrists now. It is exactly because of this type of ass-sucking that I avoid church. Random genuflecting irritates me. I am no longer nervous. I give Chic Annie in her hideously outré square-toes a piteous look and reply, “How fascinating.” It sounded sarcastic, bitchy. I didn’t intend it to, but there it was, hanging.

Rebuke was swift. His Maxness tuned in and turned on me. “Why would a fashion editor be so horribly unfashionable? You rather resemble a potato with two pointy eyes at the end.” I blushed hotly.

Chic Annie had closed her eyes the moment His Maxness spoke his first syllable – a sixth sense I suppose. My brain reverberated with loud white noise. No witty rejoinder coming from this end. I snatched my portfolio from the table, pressed the door button I’d seen Kiko press before, looked Max in the eye and whispered, “Fuck you asshole.” I marched to the elevator, looking wildly for a door to the stairs, anyway to get out of there as quickly as possible. There was no escape. Humiliated I pressed the elevator button and stood waiting, my back-end to the bubble until the door slid open and I could get on and out to the Pacific Ocean as quickly as my unfashionable luggage could be packed.

*

Tonya Walker is a Canadian living in New York with her husband and teaching on the Upper East Side in New York at an all-girls' private school she adores. After 20 years in Virginia raising a poet and an engineer and writing four unpublished novels, she rediscovered the joy of the short story. She is now crafting a collection of short stories about Toronto's media scene in the 90s. 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Fiction #74

New fiction! Issue #74
Submissions now open for #75!

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #74: Harlan Yarbrough

One Mistake After Another

Rudy once admitted he preferred slender women, and Ysadore made sure he paid for that transgression.  For twenty-three years, she attacked him and criticized him for failings invented, real, and imagined.  Already tending ever so slightly toward the Rubenesque, she put on ninety pounds to become a caricature of the beautiful woman he had courted.  But Rudy loved her and submitted to her attacks and did his best to make her happy—a difficult task at best, but one that mattered to him.

Through two decades, Rudy wished his wife could feel glad for his love, for his desire.  He wished she could experience their lovemaking with a feeling of “He isn't making love to a tiny waist or a pair of pointy tits—he's making love to me,” but she apparently couldn't.  Instead, Ysadore usually avoided sex altogether, which left Rudy's large appetite frustrated most of the time.  Still, he persisted in doing everything he could to make her life as good as possible, not because he was a saint but because he was in love with Ysadore.

He faced an enormous conflict, when, after twenty-three years together and twenty-two years of marriage, Ysadore met a man who liked “curvy” women and fell in love with him.  Rudy felt devastated to lose whatever love there was from the person he loved most in the world.  At the same time, he wanted Ysadore to be happy, the same thing he’d wanted for twenty-three years.  He wished she could be happy with him, of course, but first and foremost he wanted her to be happy, to live the life she wanted.  Keeping his focus on that wish wasn't easy, but he worked hard at it.

Fred seemed like a decent sort, nothing special (except to Ysadore), maybe not as intelligent as Rudy or Ysadore, but a nice guy who might love her and care for her.  Rudy wanted to accept that, and he didn't dislike Fred—Rudy wasn't sure whether that made the situation easier or more difficult—so, although aching, he did his best to support Ysadore in her exploration and development of her new relationship.  She had the decency to feel guilty about putting Rudy through so much pain, but Rudy didn’t want Ysadore to feel guilty: he wanted her to be happy.  For his part, Fred seemed to sort of go along with whatever Ysadore wanted.

Mei Lin came from Hong Kong and taught biology at the university in the city.  When Rudy met her, he wasn't swept off his feet—he was still in love with Ysadore—but he was impressed.  Mei Lin wanted Rudy and didn't hesitate to say so, whenever they were out of earshot of Ysadore.  Rudy appreciated Mei Lin's attention, as well as her beauty and her intellect, but didn't encourage her—until the week Ysadore told him about Fred.  Even then, Rudy continued to wrestle with an inner conflict because of his continuing love for Ysadore,  but he did enjoy feeling wanted in a way he hadn't in a quarter of a century.

In the course of a difficult five months, Rudy and Ysadore made a relatively peaceful transition to separate lives.  Rudy moved into a too small house with one of their daughters, and Fred moved into the house Rudy and Ysadore once shared.  Rudy entertained Mei Lin most weekends for six months, until he went overseas for work.  As an immigrant himself, Rudy thought he could understand Mei Lin’s situation and outlook better than most and thought seriously about making a life with her.

Nevertheless he worried about their compatibility—or potential lack of it.  They talked about how they could spend more time together, but she felt no desire to leave the city and Rudy knew he could never stand to live in an urban environment.  Ysadore went on with her life almost as if no change had occurred.  Her feelings for Fred seemed to put a glow on everything, at least at first.

Her life seemed almost identical to the life she and Rudy once shared.  She continued to enjoy her many animals, the garden, and the orchard she and Rudy had planted.  Once their initial passion subsided, sex became an afterthought every three or four weeks.  Her younger daughter, Lily, continued her successful high school career and mostly got along OK with her mom and stepdad.  Lily didn't much like Fred but obeyed half of her father's injunction to tolerate and respect her mom's new partner.

The months Rudy spent overseas didn't do much for his emotional state—he continued to ache for his lost love—but they left him in a much better financial position.  He faced the pleasant dilemma of whether to add on to the house he and his elder daughter, Rosie, again occupied or to buy something else in the area.  He chose the latter option, which didn't effect much change in his life and made none at all to the pain lingering in his heart.  Mei Lin resumed visiting but with less intensity and less frequency than before Rudy's overseas trip.  Between those visits he enjoyed a couple of dalliances with female friends who expressed an interest once they learned he was single.  He still loved Ysadore but recognized after two years that he was better off out of that relationship.

One late Autumn evening nearly three years after Ysadore had moved Fred in with her, Rudy's 'phone rang.  He picked up the handset and heard her voice saying, “Rudy, do you think you could come over and fix the pump?”

“Why doesn't Fred fix it?”

“He can't do that.”

“He prob'ly could.  It isn't that hard.”

“Fred isn’t handy like you.  You know that.”

“Sure, but, really, it would be easy, even for him.”

“Trust me: he couldn't do it.”

“OK, then.  Can you manage until tomorrow, so I can do it in the daylight?  Do you have water on hand?”

“Some.  Yeah, tomorrow would be great.”

“Do you know what's wrong?”

“No.”

“OK.  Is that old blue pump still there—in case I need to install it as a temporary fix?”

“Yeah, I think so.  I'm pretty sure it's in the garage.  I'll look.”

“Good.  If you need more water tonight, you can get all you want out of the tap down the hill from the hen house.  It's below the tank, so you don't need the pump.  You can't take a shower or that sort of thing, but that'll be OK overnight, won't it?”

“Yes, Rudy, that'll be fine.”

“OK, good.  I'll see you tomorrow then, probably late morning or early afternoon.”

“OK.  Thank you.”

The next day, Rudy fixed the old water system, as he did for two decades before Ysadore met Fred.  He found the problem wasn't the pump but a severely clogged filter, cheaper and easier to fix, which he gave a thorough back-flushing at the tap below the henhouse.  He showed both Ysadore and Fred the old filter and how to install it and told them to pick up a new one next time they were in town. 

The next day, Ysadore 'phoned Rudy again.

“I just wanted to thank you for fixing the water,” she said, then added, “and to tell you how nice it was to have you here.  I've missed having you around the place.”

“You're welcome, of course.  You know me: I'm always glad to help.”

Another month passed before Ysadore 'phoned again with another request for help.  This time, Rudy drove over and fixed a broken rain gutter.  Fortunately, he left plenty of spare lengths of gutter and fittings, when he moved out, and noone had moved them.  He even found the glue he'd left behind, so fixing the problem took almost no time.  As Rudy stood by the door of his pickup ready to leave, Ysadore made as if to hug him, but he slipped into the driver's seat with as much subtlety and tact as he could.

The following day, Ysadore's 'phone call didn't surprise Rudy.  She thanked him again for his help and again told him she missed his company.  “I miss you, too,” he said, truthfully, “but you have Fred after all.”

“Yeah.  I don't know how much longer that'll be.  I'd rather have you.”

“Awww, that's sweet,” Rudy said, “but I'm still me, and you're still you.”

“We did pretty well the first time,” Ysadore replied.  “We lasted twenty-three years.  We can be really good together.  Wouldn't you like that?”

“I guess that's something we can think about,” Rudy answered and extracted himself from the conversation as quickly and tactfully as he could.

*

Graduated as a mathematician, Harlan Yarbrough has been a full-time professional entertainer most of his life, including a stint as a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry. Repeated attempts to escape the entertainment industry have brought work as librarian, physics teacher, syndicated newspaper columnist, and city planner among other occupations. Harlan lives in New Zealand but returns to the US to perform.

Fiction #74: David Menear

Ragged White Ice

Her face was grey and dry and deeply lined, reminding me of driftwood stranded on the rocky shores back home. I sat up ramrod straight on the tattered plaid couch beside my mom’s sister, Aunt Anne. There was a tired and musty smell of damp ashes about her. Anne’s nose was a big jellyfish blob webbed with thin red veins looking like a crumpled old treasure map, but where the rivers flowed blood and not water. When she spoke, it was a mumbling, sandpapery sound that I struggled to understand. Between Aunt Anne and her husband John, sat a large, alert and happy looking dog. They had named him ‘King’. He was a caramel coloured German Shepherd splotched with patches of black, and some gold tufts over his bright and eager eyes. His long, shiny tongue dripped long lines of spit that dangled and swayed with his breathing in the hot dead air of the crowded apartment. I bent forward to see past King to peer over at John. He noticed this, and smiled at me with his wet and baggy red eyes. He only had a few teeth left in his mouth. They were yellowish-brown and had me thinking of rotten corn or cigarette butts. Still, I trusted his smile. He was wearing one of those white undershirts without sleeves that most men wear, stained a pissy yellow under his hairy pits.  The bottom half of his right pant leg below the knee was crumpled and empty, and draped off the couch like a puppet show curtain to the floor.

Across the cluttered room my mother looked uncomfortable, and embarrassed. She was lying flat-out in a battered Lazy-Boy chair that was stuck on recline. My kid sister Wendy was dozing fitfully, sprawled limply across her body, sighing softly and making cute little sticky noises with her lips. Dennis, my big brother and the oldest, is nine. He stood slumping against the wall beside my mom and my sister like some tough little bodyguard thug looking bored and kind of  pissed-off. I stared hypnotized, at a wood-framed picture on the bumpy wall just over his head. It was a scary painting of a long-haired skinny guy wearing only a big white diaper, or maybe a dirty gym towel. He was hammered to an upright wooden cross with big nails and was bleeding a lot from his hands, feet and stomach. Women with long, flowing white dresses and covered heads, knelt beneath him in the blood-puddled dirt. One lady was crying, looking far up at his drooping face with tears in her eyes. A few soldiers holding spears talked and laughed nearby. In the distance on a low hill there were more crosses with other guys dangling off of them too. I had to wonder who they were, and what they had done so wrong.

Dennis didn’t even notice the weird painting behind him. He was focused on a life-sized plastic leg propped in the far corner of the room. The leg shared the space with a no-string guitar, a blackened dirty broom, a crutch, a Donald Duck umbrella and a busted cane. Maybe the leg was stolen, snapped off of a Sears store mannequin as a prank. It just stands there propped calmly in the corner, naked except for a crumpled black sock and a scuffed-up shoe.

My father wasn’t here. I didn’t know why, but I did know that I didn’t miss him. I did miss the trees hugging our house, and the nearby ocean always calling out to me like a friend that wanted to play.
In front of King was a TV tray crowded with mostly empty beer bottles. Abruptly, John, grunting hard, struggles to stand. Pushing himself up off the couch, he’s swaying . I don’t know if it’s because of the beers or the missing leg. He brushes up against the table setting a bottle wobbling and then he hops wildly over to the TV set. Anne reached out and steadied the bottle, coughed, choked and then let loose a loud witches cackle. Dennis and I looked at one another with our eyebrows raised trying hard not to laugh. “Christ John!, you sit back down and finish your beer before you fall down.” she said. King smiled at Aunt Anne and barked brightly, his eyes sparkling with fun. John turned the big knob and clicked on the set. From the TV there was only a bunch of static hissing noise and the screen was nothing but grey ghosts and funny flickering lines. Mumbling, he fiddled with the rabbit ears until the picture was pretty clear. It was ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ just starting! I love the whistling music and wished I knew how to do that. John seemed crabby suddenly. He turned and announced, “You know-sometimes, I think the only way I can change my crappy life is by changing the channels on this damn stupid idiot-box.” I glanced over at Wendy to make sure she wasn’t scared. She was fine, her big brown eyes smiling at the show and happy hugging King.

Before we took the long trip to the city, I had heard my mother in the kitchen on the telephone. She was yelling and then whispering and crying some too. Mom sounded so upset and angry that I was shaking and scared. I only heard some scraps of what she was saying,  “...sleazy... disgusting drunk…pervert...sweet little girl...ruined...he’s sick...” The next morning we packed all of our things into one big brown suitcase. Mom said that we were allowed clothes for 3 days, 2 books and 1 toy. I couldn’t decide if I should bring my View-Master or Mr. Potato Head, and so, I packed 3 books. Wendy only wanted to take her rainbow striped Hula-Hoop. My mother started to say no, and Wendy started to cry, and then Dennis said he would carry it. And that was that.  

Blowing up hot dust and gravel a big bus lurched to a stop, picking us up on Cow Bay Road to take us into Halifax. Soon, we were on a train to Toronto for two days and one night of green and grey and bright blue skies. Starless darkness streaking by. Our mom kept writing stuff in a notebook, and sometimes looked up. Through us, or past us. She seemed determined, not worried. Leaning against the window Dennis was reflected in the black glass. He had two heads now, with two mouths that never smiled or spoke. Wendy and I, we ran around screeching and laughing, chasing each other from car-to-car, up and down the length of the train, again -and-again-and again. A navy guy growled at us to ‘shut-up!” A bigger navy guy told him to “shut-up.” Grinning and nodding he waved us over, and then slowly fed us little treats of jujubes and Cracker Jacks, as if we were stray puppies or squirrels at a park. Mom called us.

Our Mother had gone out early to get money from someone at the government so that we could have our own apartment. Dennis, Wendy, King and I were all crammed in tight together on the couch to sleep. It was lumpy and smelled of stale beer and stinky old dog farts. The air was heavy with wet heat and yesterday’s cigarette smoke. Somehow, we all woke up at the very same time. Hungry, we shuffled along together into the kitchen rubbing our bleary eyes. John was there sitting on the floor, leaning against the cabinets near the sink, drinking what smelled like coffee. We stopped abruptly in a fuzzy line, bumping into each other and then silently stared. His scarred raw stump was sticking straight out of his underwear. It was like a one-eyed giant’s big ugly weiner. I felt sad and strange and struggled to breathe, remembering the emptiness I felt standing still and alone at the edge of the ocean. Frozen solid in my feelings I watched as a cold and hard wind creeped steadily beneath the clouds, pushing calmly across the grey water like an evil invisible spirit  leaving a plain of ragged white ice before me.

Mom came back to Aunt Anne’s after a few hours. She looked really, really happy. We were all sitting together crammed on the couch with King, watching Woody Woodpecker cartoons. Together, we all looked over at her and sang out, “Ha-ha-ha-Ha-ha-ha…”, just like Woody would. She laughed, and told us to hurry up and put our stuff back into the big brown suitcase. Mom said,”We’re going home kids.”

It was egg-frying hot again. Dennis and mom wrestled along the broken sidewalk with the heavy brown bag. I held on tight to Wendy’s one hand and scraped the Hula-hoop along in the other. No one seemed to have anything to do or anywhere to go around here. A few people were busy with gardens on their lawns growing what looked like giant brussel sprouts. Ugh. Mostly though, everyone just hung-out drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. I don’t know what they were all waiting for. We passed cars with no wheels and kids without clothes. Toothless mouths spat shiny black goop. There was some pushing and shoving and some yelling. Police came. Dogs barked, women hollered and glass broke. It was dreary and grey and crowded. It was Cabbagetown. It was scary and exciting. Now it’s  home.

Our new place was over a fish & chip shop at Sackville Street and a busy road with clattering and clanging streetcars. Around the back-alley we climbed up steep, creaking wooden stairs, that swayed from side-to-side as we clambered higher. The place was huge. There was nobody or nothing in it. Our voices bounced like rubber balls, loud off the walls in the welcome silent emptiness. We loved it. Our apartment, and our lives quickly filled up with new friends and furniture and school and fun.

Our mom didn’t have a job job. Because her job was to look after us, she said. She did work the few weeks before Christmas though to buy Santa stuff for us.  One night, she came home late and tired to her Christmas surprise. Our magic show! Still in her wet snowy coat we sat her down on the couch. Standing in front of Mom, between Dennis and I, Wendy stood with a shining goofy smile on her sweet little face. Slooooooowly, we raised a sheet in front of her and then we hollered out, ‘Shazam!’. We dropped the sheet, and Wendy disappeared. After a few anxious minutes, we raised the sheet again, and then suddenly dropped it, yelling out another ‘Shazam!’  And, there was little Wendy again, looking sly and shy, like she had a secret she’d never share.

*

Menear is most often described as an edgy, urgent, gritty and sometimes ‘transgressive’ short story writer with a soft heart and a sense of humour. You find him at that place where Salinger meets Cormac McCarthy for tea and cookies. In his first few years of writing Menear’s stories have been published in several respected Canadian literary magazines. DevilHouse produced his short story collection in 2014 that sold out in a few short months. He was selected for an Exile Editions anthology 'Canadian Noir' March 2015. David, a father of four, has spent most of his life between Toronto and Montreal but has also lived in big city England and quaint village France. He studied art in New York City. First novel publication is imminent. Menear is currently trying to pay the bills modeling and acting.

Fiction #74: Kathryn Mockler

The Job Interview: A Murder

I had always been a careful person, neurotic, in fact. I wouldn’t walk at night alone. Ever. I always double-checked that the doors were locked before bed. I touched the burners on the stove more times than I cared to admit before I left the house. I wouldn’t mix Tylenol and alcohol because it could harm my liver. I read directions on all my medications. Rarely would I jaywalk. I basically lived my life thinking the worst possible thing was going to happen at any moment, and I did my best to prevent it. The methods of operating my life in this way were the result of obsessive compulsions, a hypochondriacal mother, and the fact that we live in a nightmare with no plausible explanation for how or why we are here.

My husband and I had been living in Windsor, Ontario for about a year so he could attend a graduate program in visual arts. I had graduated from my master’s program in creative writing the previous year after which was I lucky enough to get a grant to write a book of poetry. However, the money was now running out, and I needed a job badly.

There were at least two reasons I always had trouble getting jobs. I suffered from extreme under-confidence and I had terrible anxiety making job interviews nearly impossible. I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t be myself, and so it immediately turned potential employers off—understandably so.

Because I had been a student for years and didn’t require the type of clothing needed for a professional job, I didn’t have much in the way of a wardrobe. I wore casual clothes around the house and then I had my one outfit that I liked to wear when we went out. One night when we were at an art opening, a woman from my husband’s program to whom I had only spoken on a couple of occasions and didn’t particularly like, turned to me in front of a group of people and said, “Do you only have that one outfit? Is that like your uniform? Because every time I see you, you’re wearing the same thing.”

I don’t know how, but I managed to stammer an attempt at self-mockery—“Yes it’s my uniform. It’s the only thing I like to wear.”

Then I quickly excused myself to the bathroom and sobbed. Big wet sloppy tears were pouring out of my eyes. I could hear people chatting and laughing on the other side of the door. I cried like a kid who had just been picked on by a schoolyard bully—even though I was twenty-eight-years old. I felt shame and hatred and anger all at once. All my good comeback lines played themselves over and over in my head.

Yes, I really did only have that one outfit. It served as both my job interview outfit and my going out outfit—a black blazer, a light blue collared shirt with blue flowers, and black pants. It was the only outfit I felt good in since I had recently gained some weight.

So here I was in Windsor, Ontario looking for a job, a little more desperate than usual since “the uniform” comment. The problem for me in terms of getting a job, in addition to my confidence and anxiety issues, was that I didn’t have any skills. I wasn’t experienced enough to get a teaching job, and the jobs I had held in the past—house cleaning, dishwashing, and factory work—I didn’t particularly want. I was too terrified of people to waitress and I didn’t want to work a job where I had a use a cash register because I was too terrified of cash registers.

I had always longed to work in a bookstore or a library, but I could never land one of those coveted positions. So that pretty much left me applying for administrative work which was also proving impossible to get in this small economically depressed town in 1999.

I applied to several temp agencies and took all their demoralizing personality, word processing, and excel spreadsheet tests, and I looked in the paper every day to see if there were any listings for odd jobs. For a little while, things were starting to look up. I got a day of work answering phones at a paper factory, and I made it to the second round interview stage at the Nutrition Hut in the mall but ultimately didn’t get the job. They said I wasn’t experienced enough.

So I continued to scan newspaper ads until I found one from a company looking for some part-time admin help for a small family-run business. They were going to pay ten dollars an hour which was better than minimum wage. It sounded good to me, so I called the number right away and set up an appointment.

Even though I put on the “uniform” and told my husband that I was going to an interview before I left the apartment, I realized as I got off the bus and walked down what looked like a residential street in a run-down subdivision, I had not given him the address or phone number. That was kind of a stupid thing to do, I thought to myself as I stood in front of the house.

I considered just walking away, but there were a couple of kids playing out front—a little boy with a skateboard and a little girl wearing a pink dress and heavy black shoes, which made the place seem safe enough, so I decided to knock on the door.

A guy with a mustache named John wearing cut-offs and a dirty undershirt answered in bare feet. If this was a story, I thought to myself with a little laugh, he’d be a cliché. Since I started writing, a little game I played with myself was picking out people who I thought were clichés. John was a white trash cliché. The boy was a little boy cliché and his sister would have been a little girl cliché if she hadn’t be wearing such unusual shoes. As I straightened my black blazer and adjusted my blue flower shirt, I thought about the woman who had insulted me at the art opening and decided she was a grad school cliché. And although I didn’t know it at the time, I too would become a cliché—a dead girl cliché.

The boy from the front yard ran up to the door and said—“Hi, John, can I come over and play video games?”

“Not right now, Ethan. We’ve got a guest,” he said and let me inside.

I took off my shoes and looked around. The place seemed normalish enough, a little messy but nothing really out of the ordinary except all the furniture was white.

John said, “Our office is downstairs,” and he led me all the way to the back of the house. The house was long. It seemed to take forever to get from one end to the other. As we walked through the living room and then dining room and then to a little porch, the two kids from outside followed us along the side of the house. They banged on the windows and yelled things at us, and by the time we got to the back, Ethan and his sister were standing at the screen door.

“Who is the blonde lady?” Ethan asked. “Is she the same one from before?”

“None of your beeswax,” John said. He had this strange ability to be nice and mean to the kid at the same time.

“Can we come in, John?” Ethan asked.

“Not now,” John said. “Go home.” And he shut the door in the little boy’s grinning stupid face.

God, that kid is annoying, I thought.

“John,” Ethan pleaded. “I don’t want to go home.”

I do, I thought. I want to go home right now.

“Get outta here,” John said, this time with a firmer tone.

There’s a weird prickly feeling that you get when you realize that you could be in serious danger.

Some people call it a sixth sense or instinct. I remember a guest on Oprah talking about self-defense and how women have the ability to sense danger before they are actually in danger. It’s kind of like built-in radar, a protection device. It’s something you should always listen to, she said. It’s something you should never ignore because it could save your life. When you get these sensations, your body is trying to tell you something.

She was right. I had this radar. And I knew I had it. I knew I had it because when I took one look at the outside of the house the feeling was there—that sense or instinct that told me I might be headed for danger. A voice inside my head said, it’s not worth it—go home. And as I was stepping inside the door that same voice tried to stop me. I knew I shouldn’t have gone in, but I went in anyway because I wanted to believe there was a job that paid me ten dollars an hour. I won’t eat mayonnaise past the expiration date, yet somehow I managed to find myself in a strange man’s basement and no one knew I was there.

Before we went downstairs, John told me to put on some slippers because the basement floor was dirty. Along the edge of the porch, there were several house slippers of different sizes lined up in a neat row.

Did I mention that I was a germophobe?

The slippers were blackened with dirt and they smelled, and even though I declined them at first, John insisted. He didn’t want my sock feet to get dirty, he said, and there was a tone in his voice that made me feel like I couldn’t refuse. So I picked the least offensive pair and put them on trying my best not to show my disgust as I walked down the rickety steps to a newly renovated basement that smelled like Ikea furniture, cigarette smoke, and black mould.

Another man was sitting at a round table near a kitchenette smoking. He too had a mustache. And he too looked like a cliché. He looked like a cliché of a bad man who might cause me harm. On the table beside him—a 40 ounce bottle of rye and a shot glass.

This wasn’t a job interview. There was no family business.

“Would you like a drink,” the man said. It was a statement rather than a question, and like with the slippers, I couldn’t refuse.

I thought about Ethan, who in one moment I found as annoying as a persistent housefly and in the next, he became my lifeline who I prayed wouldn’t give up trying to play video games with John. Maybe he would break in. Maybe he would tell his mother that something terrible was taking place.

But in the end little Ethan couldn’t do anything to save me. In his last attempt to get inside—he banged on the basement window and waved with a dazed and crazy smile on his face. To be honest, he looked more like a maniac than any of them. Maybe he wasn’t a cliché after all. But John just ignored the kid and pulled down the blinds.

“I like your shirt lady,” Ethan said through the window.

Then I heard Ethan hop on his skateboard and ride down the gravel driveway, his sister clomping after him in her heavy shoes. I wondered if Ethan would tell the police that I had been there, that he had seen me? Would his sister? Were they too young to remember or would they even care?

I smiled and looked down at my pale blue shirt that just this morning I had considered retiring, not because of what the grad student had said, but because of the yellow sweat stains I found under the arms.

*

Kathryn Mockler is the author of the books Some Theories (ST Press, 2017), The Purpose Pitch (Mansfield Press, 2015),  The Saddest Place on Earth (DC Books, 2012) and Onion Man (Tightrope Books, 2011). Her writing has been published recently in Entropy, Cosmonauts Avenue, Public PoolThe Butter, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn.

Photo credit: David Poolman