Sunday, September 10, 2017

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.

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