Carl Fink drove six hours past fields of wheat and broken down trailers, past sad towns with boarded up buildings, past stretches of flat nothing, so that he could check into a shitty motel in Hutchinson, Kansas. He wouldn’t go on stage until later that night and the weather was good enough so he sat on a park bench in the common area of the motel, next to a garbage can and an empty pool. He looked down at his feet and saw a group of ants piled onto a piece of hamburger left in a McDonald’s wrapper. Their shiny black bodies moved with purpose. He checked Instagram on his phone, checked Twitter on his phone, and checked Facebook on his phone. When he was done the piece of hamburger was gone. The only things left were a couple of dead ants. He thought maybe that could be funny, maybe he could work that into a bit, but he grew bored and decided to masturbate on his queen bed. After that he checked his phone again but not much had happened in the world while he had been masturbating. His sister posted a picture of her kid, and he clicked the ‘like’ button. He flipped through channels and saw that Lethal Weapon 2 was on TV. He remembered as a kid renting that movie at McCullough’s Convenience Video with his dad. He remembered the possibilities of that chunky VHS tape in his hands. When the movie was over, after Danny Glover had shot the South African Diplomat in the face, Carl found that he had been crying again, although he could not remember when he had started. He drove to a liquor store in town and bought a bottle of bourbon and then he drove to a McDonald’s and bought two double cheeseburgers and a large fry. Sometimes after eating he felt a sharp pain in his right abdomen. Sometimes when he drove and there was an empty stretch of road, he liked to close his eyes, to see how long he could stand to drive that way. Sometimes ants died from eating too much garbage. He was working on it.
The bar was tiny and the audience was crowded on stools right up to the lip of the makeshift stage. From the side of the stage Carl looked out to their splotchy faces sitting in the dark, their potato sack shapes, their dumbstruck eyes, their Walmart clothes and their hands clutching sweating cups of beer. When his name was called, he walked onto the stage like a man late for the bus. He stood under the spotlight, gripped the mic, and addressed the crowd, feeling a sense of home in their gaze.
“Hey everyone,” he said. “I’m going to tell you a story from when I was growing up.” He paused and adjusted the mic.
“Now I grew up on a farm. My family wasn’t very big - really it was just me and my mom, when this happened. My dad, he used sit around all day and drink Rittenhouse Rye. He’d take swigs from the bottle or if he was feeling civilized he’d pour himself a glass. But he’d drink a bottle a day. He was never mean off it though. He was more of a sad drunk. You’d walk into a room and find him sitting in a chair, and he’d have these wet eyes, and there’d be this look on his face, you know? Like he was trying and trying to do better, but he just couldn’t piece it all together. Like he was grappling with this mean thing that was bigger than him. And it got so that I couldn’t look him in the eyes anymore, because it broke my heart. Anyway, my dad drank himself to death. I have a sister too, but after my dad died she took off and moved to the city, and we were all ok with that. She has a kid now. I saw a picture of them both smiling today.
“So after my dad died and my sister moved away, it was just me and my mom, having to hold down the fort on this farm. And we didn’t do a good job of it. A lot of our animals died or ran off and our crops withered. Then one day our neighbour, this woman who had once tried to buy our land from my dad, she came by with an offer. She wanted to buy our farm. But the farm was all we had, and even though we were wasting it, we couldn’t sell it. So we told her no. But the next day we saw that she was taking down the fence. And the day after that she was tilling our land. And we told her to stop but she tells us it’s her land now. And we call the police but they didn’t care. And the next day we looked to where our sad group of cattle was, and now they were all dead. Lying flat on the ground not breathing and covered in flies. And this lady is dragging our dead cattle off and moving in her cattle. And this … this … encroachment keeps happening. Soon the only part of our farm that was ours anymore was the house. And one day I wake up and she has this big bulldozer lined up next to our house, she says if we don’t sign the papers she’s just going to bulldoze our home down anyway.
“But then a miracle happened.
“Do you want to know what that miracle was?”
Carl paused. Two people in the crowd argued loudly about trucks amongst the sound of chairs moving and bottles opening.
“The miracle was my father, back from the dead.
“He had decomposed some, but goddamn it I tell you I saw my father risen from the grave, Rittenhouse in hand. He’s saying ‘Charlotte’ - did I forget to tell you the neighbour’s name was Charlotte? - saying ‘Charlotte, I fucking told you this ain’t your land.’ And then another miracle happened. I saw my sister, back from the big city. And she is saying ‘Mom! Dad! Carl! I’m back for good!’ and we were all one big happy family again.
“And we stood by our home together, united in this hatred of our neighbour. And we said and did terrible things to this neighbour, because our family was stronger than her. We hollered and cursed and spit said things you should never say to a woman. We ground her into the dirt because she was dirt and when the cops came we did the same to them too. And when enough cops came that they were able to put us in a jail cell, I tell you we couldn’t stop laughing. The world was too small for us, too dumb. Five billion years old and dying fast, just like you and me.”
When he was done he looked out into the crowd, tried to look at each person’s face. It was hard, because they were now engaged in their own conversations. The prolonged absence of Carl’s voice, however, drew their eyes back to the stage.
“Oh wait, that’s not how my dad died.
“In 1989 some South African terrorists rigged a toilet bomb in our bathroom and he blew sky high when he went to take a shit. Ha ha ha wow, how could I forget a thing like that.”
The crowd was silent.
“Now goddamn it, wait, that was Lethal Weapon 2, not my dad.”
The emcee was walking up to the stage.
“The real truth is my dad is dead and gone and that farm he raised up is dead and gone too. And that’s all the time I have tonight.”
Carl Fink left to the muted sounds of the announcer bringing the next comedian up to the stage.
The bar’s owner screamed at Carl after the show, and Carl didn’t get paid. Carl sat in the owner’s office, ignoring the man, focusing on yellowed constellation of papers scattered on the desk. He thought the words ‘Diplomatic Immunity’. After the show Carl sat at the bar with the opener and the headliner. The opener was afraid to say anything to Carl and the headliner was pissed off because it took him half his set to get the crowd back onto his side, back to laughing again. The headliner was a good comedian and when he left the bar he gave Carl a twenty and said “I don’t know if what you did was any good but hey, at least you did it.”
When Carl got back to the motel his queen bed wasn’t there anymore. It was an empty space and the carpet underneath was a different colour. There was a used condom on the different-coloured carpet.
He went to the front desk and said “Hey, my bed’s missing.”
The person working the front desk said “Was there a bed there when you checked in?”
“Did you check the pool?”
“Sometimes our beds get tossed into the pool. We had this guy who used to work here? And he was fired, it was really bad. And he made copies of the room keys here, which was also bad. Anyway, sometimes he’ll put the beds in the pool. Don’t worry though; he’s never gone back into a room after taking the bed out, so you should be safe.”
They stared at each other.
“So if my bed is in the pool can you help me get it out?”
“Oh no sir, I can’t leave the front desk after dark.”
Carl left. When he checked, he could see that it was true; his whole bed was in the pool. It was too heavy to move, and he considered sleeping outside but it was too cold to sleep outside. He took the pillows and the comforter from the bed and brought them back to his motel room. He drank the rest of his bottle of bourbon and slept on the floor, positioning his head so that it was far away from the condom. He thought about what would happen if he woke up covered in ants, covered in a pulsating, beady and alien black chrome. He decided that he would roll and thrash around on the floor, as if he were on fire. He would try to kill every last ant.
The next day, as he drove hungover to another bullshit town, to the next sad show, he came upon an empty stretch of road. He closed his eyes and it felt good to close his eyes. The thing that was funny about the ants, he decided, was that he felt so alone without his father in the world. He opened his eyes, and saw the lights of a truck come screaming.
I’m standing in the cheese section and everything’s fine, and then people start screaming over by the entrance and it turns out a falcon’s flown through the automated doors and is now fully inside the grocery store. It’s banging into walls and windows, knocking over stacks of bean cans, making children cry, and generally flying around in a panic clearly not knowing what it’s supposed to be doing in this situation. And then it starts swooping down at the customers and screeching in their ears, as if it’s thinking, “Oh I’ll just casually ask some of these people how to get out of wherever I am,” but when it comes out it doesn’t come out so casually it comes out as “KYYYAAAAAAAAAA!” So everybody’s freaking out.
Then the manager comes on the PA and says, “There’s a falcon in this store!” as if nobody’s realized that and then she tells everybody to run for their lives, and that’s what everybody does. Everybody runs for their lives. There’s a display of whole wheat Kraft Dinner by the automated doors and one guy grabs a box and just as he’s about to leave he throws it in the air behind him thinking he’ll try and hit the falcon on his way out. And then everybody behind this guy sees what he did and thinks that looks like a great idea and soon everybody’s grabbing a box of KD on their way out and throwing it behind them like it’s some sort of store tradition, as if there’s a sign beside the KD display that says before you leave the store, grab a box of KD and throw it behind you.
So now everybody’s outside of the store except the falcon. The manager switches off the automated doors, making them just manual sliding doors, and then she manually slides the doors shut and locks them up using one of the maybe thirty keys she has on a keychain attached to one of her belt loops and says, “There that’ll do it.” I don’t know why she has so many keys. Maybe it’s a power thing, like, “Yes I’m the manager, can’t you tell by all of my keys?” Anyway we’re all outside standing by the entrance and everybody’s pretty stunned. Like, “What just happened?” All the teenage cashiers are standing in a row and they’re all looking at the time on their phones, thinking, “I’m still getting paid for this, right?” And then there’s all the customers too, some of them still with carts full of food they were hoping to buy except now they can’t buy the food because the manager’s locked up the store and besides there’s a falcon in there. So everybody with a cart full of groceries isn’t sure what they’re supposed to do. Just go home? Wait until the store opens again? Some people are trying to make eye contact with the manager, hoping to get some kind of permission to keep all their groceries. “Groceries on me everybody!” they imagine the manager telling them. But she looks like she’s still in shock about the whole thing. Some people have given up and are loading their unpaid-for groceries into their trunks and bicycle baskets, telling themselves they’re not technically stealing because they weren’t given the chance to pay and besides it’s nothing too expensive.
The police arrive in ten minutes. The Chief of Police shows up himself, along with an officer named Officer Melanie. The Chief gets out of the cruiser and stands on the hood to get everybody’s attention, but then he thinks he’s not high enough so he tries to get to the roof of the cruiser but he slips a little on the windshield, so he’s fine with staying on the hood after that, but then the hood starts warping under his weight and he thinks, “Maybe this whole standing on the cruiser thing was a bad idea” and considers getting off, but he’d lose a lot of respect at this point by quitting, so he makes one final desperate jump to the roof, hoping he won’t slip this time, which he doesn’t, and now he’s on the roof of his cruiser and has everybody’s attention.
“Alright everybody!” the Chief of Police says. “Everything’s going to be fine. I’m sorry that a deadly falcon had to disrupt your Sunday grocery shopping, but don’t worry: Officer Curtis and I are here to take care of the problem.”
“Melanie,” says Officer Melanie.
“Hmm?” says the Chief.
“You called me Curtis again.”
“Curtis was my old partner.”
“What will you do about the falcon?” somebody shouts.
“Yes, the falcon,” says the Chief. “Well I know what you’re thinking: Why don’t we just board up this store, never let anybody in ever again and just forget the whole thing happened. Well I’m no quitter! I say we blow this entire place up! Not leave one brick standing! That’ll teach falcons not to fly into grocery stores! Now, who’s got some dynamite?”
Everybody in the audience applauds except for me and Officer Melanie and we make eye contact with each other and nod as if we’re in this together, that we’re the smart ones in the crowd. Then she turns back to the Chief because she’s got something to say.
“Sir, with all due respect,” Officer Melanie says. “We can’t just blow up the store. Somebody could still be in there. And think of all the food waste. Plus we might get in trouble with PETA for killing a falcon.”
“I know you’re right, Curtis, but I don’t see you coming up with other suggestions.”
“Yes, yes, Melanie.”
Why don’t we go into the store and just grab the falcon?” somebody shouts.
“Are you kidding? You want us to risk our lives by trying to grab a raptor? Not on my watch! No thanks! That thing would eat me for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and speaking of dinner, Mrs. Chief of Police is making eggplant lasagne tonight so I want this thing to get over pronto. I don’t want to eat cold lasagne!”
“Capturing the falcon is the only option, sir,” says Officer Melanie.
“Fine, but I won’t do it. If only there was somebody out there trained to interact with falcons.”
“I’ve got it! Cats! Cats catch birds all the time.”
So the Chief of Police instructs everybody to go home and grab their cats and bring them all back to the grocery store. The plan’s to let all the cats into the grocery store and wait until one of them or all of them working together catch the falcon. I don’t have a cat, but I want to see how this turns out so I stick around and pass the time by reading about falcons on Wikipedia. Half an hour later everybody’s back and now there are forty-one confused cats being held in place by their owners outside the grocery store.
“This is great!” says the Chief of Police. “I only expected twenty!”
The Chief gets everybody to line up their cats in front of the doors and the manager slides the doors open and all the cats run into the store and then the manager slides the doors closed behind them. The Chief claps his hands together in satisfaction.
“Well everybody, that should do it,” he says. “Pretty soon this nightmare will be over and the cats will have captured or killed the demon bird.”
Officer Melanie’s not listening to the Chief because she’s peeking through the window to see how effective the whole cat plan is. Turns out not too effective, because, as she explains to us, the cats ignored the falcon and just ran to the seafood section and are now eating all the seafood. The manager, thinking that maybe she can save the seafood, slides open the doors to go and get the cats out and literally a second after the doors are open the falcon flies out of the grocery store and everybody cheers.
“My work here is done,” says the Chief, getting into his car and driving away without Officer Melanie. She’s still standing outside the grocery store, thinking, “That was my ride.” I’m about to empathize with her by telling her what I really think of the Chief, but then she says to me, “His old partner Curtis retired and moved to Sarasota. The Chief hasn’t been the same since.” I think, huh, I guess people can be more complicated than first impressions imply.
Then the manager says that she can’t open the store back up for business again until all the cats are out, so she tells everybody to go get their cats. I don’t have a cat in the store, and I don’t want to wait around for everybody to get theirs out, and besides my girlfriend’s probably wondering where I am because we were making quesadillas and didn’t have any cheese so I went out to the grocery store to get cheese and that was an hour ago. I have the cheese in my hand, so I go home.
Jordan Moffatt is a writer and improviser living in Ottawa. His short fiction has appeared in many places on the web, has been printed in (parenthetical), and is forthcoming in print for Matrix Magazine and The Feathertale Review. He received an honourable mention for the 2016 Blodwyn Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for the 2016 Lit POP Award.
Her number was disconnected and that morning I received a message from her landlord telling me she had moved.
You train yourself to love someone, and then ever after their name haunts you like the sound of doves cooing in the early misty morning.
Doves, not ravens. It is the raven that already greets the two of you in bed in the morning, it is the raven tangled in the bedsheets, it is the raven perched on the shelf in the hall closet next to the spare lightbulbs. It is for the raven that you create the doves, the doves in yourself I mean, and when the raven leaves it is only the doves that remain.
Could a person live without their aviary? I wondered. I asked this question as I was staring out my apartment window, at the line of pigeons feeding at the long gutter of bread crumbs my crazy old neighbour pours out every morning. Pigeons, not doves, common pigeons, gasoline sheen to their mottled feathers. Nothing of the cool dumb aloofness of their noble cousins shifting ghostlike in the forest.
The old man’s birds must have been diseased, like all of them, but as far as I could tell that only made them hungrier for life. Clicking and buzzing, hot with death and desire, pushing against each other on the sidewalk and on the grass. Phrases for her, I thought, and I wrote them down before the rustling of the dove in my heart brought me back to reality. I threw away the paper, even more resolute.
I would fire a bullet into that old dove’s heart.
I put on my shoes and opened the door and walked down the stairs and out the front door into the mid-morning. I could already feel the heat the day was going to take. Across the street my neighbour walked out with another bucket, poured another line, and turned back into his house. The pigeons raised their wings and realigned themselves, one hungry mouth buckling down ever urgently into the earth. Urgently, ever.
The light was blinding even at that early hour, or I could feel it would be blinding, or I was staring resolutely into the heart of the sun as it rose over our city of lowrises. “The sun is the most powerful disinfectant,” I could remember my mother saying, as she pinned up my yellow bedclothes to dry.
I thought I would lay out on a park bench and let the pigeons pick my bones clean. I could already feel the wind rattling inside me. But when I came to the park I just kept walking, past the strollers and the nannies and the dogs tearing back and forth behind their prison of chainlink, their snapping jaws straining to catch the sun and the wind.
I thought I was like the dogs, or I thought I was nothing like the dogs. The shadow preceding me grew longer, longer and then shorter as the sun rose up into the sky.
How long had I been walking for?
In any case I was now at the centre of things. Above the teeming sidewalks buildings towered, silent and resolute. A dull grey shined between their eaves, pollutants smearing the blue.
Where I came from the centre was the dusty road and the sky and everything in between. The long plain stretching to nothing. Clutch of forest by the fenceline looking out of place, insignificant compared to that disembodied centre hovering above the earth. Inside the forest it was a cathedral. Outside the land baked and I could hear the tractors and the cars and my mother pinning up the laundry and singing softly to herself, but in the cathedral nothing but the wind rustling through the leaves and the tender cooing of the doves. A mated pair where the trail first bent. Sometimes I would come across them standing peacefully on the path, less than a foot apart, before the dogs caught wind and scattered them.
Sometimes I would not bring the dogs. I would creep up to the doves slowly and watch them as they trailed each other, from branch to floor to bush. Outside again the gang of crows picked at something. Cat vomit, most days. Or a coyote’s deserted kill. Even as they ate they couldn’t stop chattering, taking turns at the carcass and calling to their friends through mouthfuls of tendon.
I already saw it was a mistake to walk so far.
When he had first poured out the crumbs there were only a handful that came, the same number of crumbs but only every other day, never enough pigeons, crumbs getting soggy in the rain before they were eaten, crumbs licked up by dogs and raccoons, crumbs fertilizing his lawn. She asked me what he was doing and I said, I don’t know, I guess he’s feeding them. She said he wasn’t feeding them but their future generations. Well, the pigeons that ate those crumbs got fat and had their children and those pigeons got fat and had theirs and so on, until he had an entire flock of them pecking out every square inch of the trough.
What would happen if he were gone, I wondered? This thought occupied my mind as I waited for the light to change so that I could cross the street.
The pigeons would scatter. Many of them would die.
I took her to the farm once. We took an airplane. When I knew we were getting close I looked for the little pinprick of land. It wasn’t long before I thought I could see the house, the car, the copse, even a dog tearing for his dear life around the field. You’re imagining things, she said. And then, leaning to look out the window: It all looks the same. When we got to the house she shut herself up in the bathroom before dinner and spent all that time picking at her face in the mirror and blowing her nose. Her creams. Her allergies. When she saw the stained bedsheets that night she asked if she could sleep on the couch. Be reasonable, I said. They’re disinfected. She looked at me as if I were insane.
The next day we walked silently through the field to the forest where at the bend of the trail I showed her where the two doves had once lived. But they were long gone and all I could hear were the crows calling to each other from distant trees. The crows marking our progress in their terrible language. The night before my embarrassed mother had brought us new sheets from the hall closet. She vowed to throw the others out.
There was something wrong with me, I knew.
We walked up and down the trail looking for the doves. She got cold and we went back inside. My father was sitting by the fire with the French newspaper, one ravaged leg crossed over the other, wearing his torn brown slippers.
“What happened to the doves?” I asked him.
“The doves. The doves, Jeff,” said my mother.
“I don’t know about any doves,” said my father, darkly.
She still wasn’t talking to me. She had a habit of going to bed late but that night she retired early and when I got in next to her I could tell she was still awake. But I knew too well not to say anything. I closed my eyes and brought the doves before my perception and I swear in that moment they became real. I imagined a tree with a nest and some cover, a tree on a path in the middle of a forest, and that became home to them. When I opened my eyes and looked over at her sleeping I felt better because I knew the doves were there.
In a week’s time we left the house and a year later we were through.
For a while after we got back the raven waited outside my window, waited for me in my car, hovered in the air between buildings, calling in the same throaty voice I’d only ever heard on the farm and on the one or two occasions I had gone even further north. A tenor and bluntness that city crows do not dare imitate.
But I’d had the doves with me.
I ate lunch at a sandwich place, watching the city pass in the polished metal of the oven range. My view was spoiled when a delivery truck pulled to a stop on the curb directly in front of the restaurant. I took out a few bills and laid them on a counter. The clerk hesitated when he took them, measuring my willingness to leave, the change that would come back to him.
Further down a long section of road was marked off with tape and yellow and green pennants. Frustrated cars did u-turns at the barricades while a dozen onlookers cheered the crowd of runners. The limbs of the people running stirred something in me, their legs and arms moving in frustrated synch, their bodies dripping with sweat.
I waited for a gap and crossed the street. I wanted to get to the lake, because it was the only place in the city where I had seen the centre hovering in the sky.
A cloud pulled in front of the sun, but ahead I could see a band of light where the road came to its end. There, in the light, stood the old Flagstaff building, cornices and ridges in high relief.
The doves flew from branch to branch calling after each other through the trees. One dove called and the other followed. They took turns. I watched from the ground and sometimes tried to sketch them. I had the idea of setting up a net so I could see them in greater detail but I was worried they would accidentally strangle and die.
One morning she’d come home to find the kettle melted on the stove. I had put it on for tea but forgot the water. When she lifted it off the burner the hot metal dripped to the floor and rolled in balls to the corner where it settled.
She said she hated me for it. Thank god the metal did not light. Thank god no one was burned. I stood there like an idiot while she called me names, gazing into the corner and thinking of the doves.
“No, I do love you,” I said to her later that night.
She was silent.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I’m sorry too,” she might have said.
I felt I understood her better.
I thought if I told the old man to stop feeding the pigeons he might stop but who am I to starve them? Who am I to tell him what to do?
The doves are flying through me pecking at my insides.
In the paper I read that through a trick of light the city on the far shore of the lake could once be seen as if it were only a hundred feet away. Fata Morgana. Our city looked on their city hanging suspended in the air, so close we could pick out landmarks, ships, even horses and people.
The mirage only worked one way. They could not look back at us. This was around the turn of the century. I don’t know if it has ever happened again.
I looked up from the shore at the empty sky hanging over the lake. The clouds were behind me but moving in my direction.
I wanted so badly to see that other city. It was stupid but I thought that might be where she lived. I thought if I could just see her city I could send the doves to her. I didn’t want to put a bullet in them any longer.
The water was warm, much warmer than I expected. I tied my shoes together and strung them around my neck. The clouds were creeping up to the pier but I could still feel the sun on my skin. Staring out at the water it was easy to pretend the city didn’t exist, that the centre was in front of me, in the air.
When I showed her my old sketches of the doves the next morning, before we came out for breakfast, she said that they were ugly. In truth, they were, profoundly so. When my father left for his morning walk, hobbling out on his broken legs, my mother told me she thought he had shot them. What? The doves.
My mother shrugged.
“Don’t tell him that I told you.”
I dropped into the water. It was deeper than I thought. I pushed out from the pier. I could feel the sun in the water brushing up against me.
I swam as far as I could and looked up and down for the other city.
Just the sky hanging above the horizon. Just a seagull doing turns in the sky.
Once upon a time there was a little boy and a little girl
who lived in different places
and didn’t know each other.
Ken Sparling, this poem is a house
There is such an obvious shift in scent and air pressure before it rains. I don’t understand how my wife remains immune to it.
It is going to rain, I tell her. Sunday morning, we stand adjacent to swings assisting preschooler, swinging. She might not agree with my assessment, but we make our way home from the playground, avoiding the downpour by minutes.
There is a word for this.
A fragment of Ray Bradbury’s short story collection The Martian Chronicles still unsettles: the house that outlived its occupants, after their shadows burned into exterior wall. As a pre-teen, I saw the back of our farmhouse as the house in the story and still do.
The family dog, collapsed dead on the porch.
There are things that we carry, that we are unable to set down again. Fictions, both real and imagined.
As Dany Laferrière wrote: I am writing this book to save my life. I am nestled in bracken and thorny brambles, scribbling my freedom in margins.
I am Peter Rabbit, deep in the undergrowth. The fox can never find me.
I take off my coat. She takes off her coat.
The toddler kicks off boots, tosses coat to the floor.
One for sorrow, two for mirth.
Certain British literature for children espouses bored offspring in school uniforms, whether singularly or alongside siblings, cousins or friends, dispatched to neither be seen nor heard, and who unearth something magical. Our attics connect, and we rummage around until we find something ancient, abandoned and possibly cursed. An ancient egg nestled in the flying carpet we salvaged from thrift. The interior of the wardrobe is endless, and expands into snowy exterior.
And yet, no child questions: why are we only discovering this now? What else have they kept from us? Curiosity, pushing fearlessly past storage of winter coats.
The Canadian show Read All About It (1979-1983) and its abandoned coach house that held printing presses, and the steamer trunk that allowed them to travel through time. Hello, 1812. Hello, Laura Secord and Major-General Sir Isaac Brock.
Our century-old farmhouse was always a disappointment. There were no hidden doors or corridors, and the back of my parents’ walk-in sheltered no secret compartments. Our house held no ghosts.
Perhaps the lesson here is one of discernment, and more subtle, archaeological clues. We dug around for the obvious, unable to understand yet how real secrets are kept.
She calls through the baby monitor, crying. I had a bad dream.
I touch down on toddler bed, to comfort her. She says: I don’t like thoughts. What are they? What are thoughts? I had a bad thought about a shark and a mermaid.
Dreams, I offer, are stories our head makes up. The more I repeat this, the more I begin to believe it.
Winnie-the-Pooh: I’m just a little black rain cloud.
My privilege shelters me. Had I been born in another time, I might already be dead. My babies might already be dead. Had I been born in another place, I might already be dead or imprisoned, my lands stolen from under me. My wife and our babies as well. Had I been born with a different pigmentation, I might already be dead. My babies, targeted. My wife, dead. So much that needs still to be addressed. At what point does acknowledgment unsettle enough to become action, including my own?
After three years, I haven’t quite managed the basics of gardening. I plant, water and weed, and then, somehow, don’t bother again for days. The sun bakes and the weeds, overtake.
Our neighbour from across the street rings our doorbell and gifts us a small bag of tomatoes. After introducing himself, he says that his had overrun his backyard, and he had visited the surrounding houses prior to ours. More than he knows what to do with, he says.
A week later, I return the gesture, gifting a fresh loaf of banana bread. There is no such thing as too much.
Stephen Reid posts a photo to Facebook, with caption: This is where we hid out in the bad old days as The Stopwatch Gang.
Sedona, Arizona: a desert town by Flagstaff, surrounded by red-rock buttes, steep canyon walls and pine forests. This is where decades of bandits lay hidden, fresh from robbing banks and trains and covered wagons. A Canadian trio of bank robbers, they were ever in tune with history.
The Stopwatch Gang: the opposite of gunslingers.
Returning home from mid-week work, my wife calls out a greeting. She places car keys upon the kitchen island, and hangs up her coat. How was your day?
The first snow coats everything: our unkempt lawn, and the scattering of backyard chairs and toys I have yet to gather.
Toddler drifts through the ends of her nap. Dinner warms in the oven.
Half-asleep in the living room, I’ve put all my faith into Brian Eno recordings. Today’s entry: Bang on a Can – Music for Airports.
Her voice down the runway.
A recent fan theory posits that the character Sandy in the musical Grease (1978) had drowned, and the entire movie is essentially her coma-dream.
Half-joking, my wife counters: Must you take everything from me?
We return from the orchard, two Empire bags richer. My dear wife’s suggestion that, at least every week or two, we participate in some kind of family outing. Today it was off to an orchard in the east-end, with a side-trip for groceries in a suburban box store. In another few weeks, a morning around the collection of a singular pumpkin, due south. The toddler is thrilled.
Post-orchard, apple bags are relegated to the sunroom. Over subsequent days, I prepare apple bread, applesauce, pies. I contemplate jam, even as toddler gnaws at a core. Scrape the burnt sauce from the floor of the pot for a week.
There are days in which I can’t discern how anything connects.
This is but one.
As soon as her apartment door opened, he handed Molly a slightly wilted rose that he had just purchased from a street vendor. Sigmund blushed at the sight of Molly blushing, their cheeks looking more like the colour of a rose than the actual rose did.
“You are an absolute darling!” she said. “I shall return in a moment; I am just off to grab my coat and put this in a vase.”
Sigmund nodded and stepped into the front hallway of the house so that they could close the door and keep all of the cold air from rushing in and destroying the perfectly temperate home environment Molly’s parents had meticulously fabricated. He wanted to make a good second impression on her— they had only just met in their high school’s German literature class a few days before.
Molly returned to the front hallway sans the rose and wearing a beige trench coat. He thought it made her look like a detective and that turned him on a bit, which confused him.
“Allons-y,” he cooed, opening the door for her and following closely behind. She turned to look at him briefly during their walk to the café down the street and he smiled at her in a way that he hoped was flirtatious. Sigmund and Molly sat themselves down at a table near a window and made their orders: black coffee and black coffee with two sugars, respectively.
Overcome with feelings of boldness and false confidence, Sigmund gently reached for Molly’s hands, which she had placed on the table. He looked deep into her eyes, searching for the words that would somehow sum up how great of a time he was having.
“I’m having a really great time,” Sigmund said.
“As am I,” she replied.
“We should do this again sometime, Mommy.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Huh? Oh, fuck, hold on, did I just say Mommy instead of Molly? I meant Molly! Molly, for Christ’s sake. Not Mommy. Ha ha, ha ha ha. That was weird. Ha ha.”
David, Evelyn, and Peter screamed with laughter, tears streaming down their faces, creating a cacophony out of a strange mixture of cackles and loud gasps for air. An inside joke had led David to performing an impressive feat of physical comedy involving his empty water bottle for his two best friends. It was an overwhelming success.
Their laughter gradually decreased as they sat in the park. David threw the empty water bottle as far away as he could: not very far. It landed in the grass a couple of metres away from them.
Evelyn sighed. “You just littered again, David.”
“I’ll alert the media,” he retorted.
STEPHANIE FROM HIGH SCHOOL
Stephanie walked into her workplace where she found great success and stability in doing what she loved. Her mental health was perfect.
For some reason, she mused, I feel as though somewhere in the world, Chloé Galarneau is seething with jealousy at the state of my life in comparison to hers.
Part One: The Attack of Castro Gash
Sewer Rat Jack was happy to associate himself with sewage. Decided, at an early age, it was his aesthetic. Born and nurtured in the trash by a pack of junkie rats, Jack felt stifled by dumpster confinement, suspected life spanned vaster and so could he. Eventually, he made his move for the tunnels.
Sewer Rat Jack experimented occasionally with painting, writing, guitar—and always existentialism. He cultivated a nasty mass of scraggly hairs between his ears that wouldn’t commit to any style. Once, Jack and his friends came across a little spill of Clorox, and just for fun each of them dipped a small pocket of fur into it. Jack bleached his scraggly hair patch and burned a little piece of ear right off. It bled and excreted puss for two weeks, eventually settling into scarring, and he decided this was the perfect look.
Jack even found a girlfriend—kind of; titles are overrated, but Jack didn’t mind saying, “my girl,” and his girl didn’t mind saying, “that guy I’m seeing.” Her name was Sage the Sophist. They would often converse about morality and the relationship between mind and body, eat the crumbs of stale hamburger buns, and have mediocre sex. Once, Sage found a scrap from Descartes’ The Passions of the Soul, featuring two and a half sentences total, and she and Jack discussed it for eight rat months. It was the only philosophy they had ever read.
Despite all this, Jack never felt like he’d found himself. He would observe his rat peers, their laissez-faire lifestyles and perfectly curated smiles—suggesting they were happy but also that profound thought ran deep and sullen through their veins—suddenly feeling uncomfortable in his own fur, vulnerable beneath the messy tuft of blonde hair, wondering, Do I look like a douche showing off a scar on my ear? He pondered endlessly about the worth of his life, the value of his person, whether his aesthetic was truly tailored to fit him, would tell Sage about it but she would always reply with, “For real, same,” and he would think how self-indulgent that was. He felt he needed change, considered that crime would perhaps offer the stimuli and purpose he sought, but couldn’t commit himself to the idea of living life further on the fringes; besides, he had a conscience.
In the end, crime found him. Chewing on a moldy bread crust in a particularly foul-smelling tunnel, Jack was faced toward the wall, mouth to food in paw, when Castro Gash, the Young-thug-luvin’ Rat, came up behind him with a fragment of a fork prong clutched in his pink, fleshy paw. Castro Gash forked Jack in the side of his belly, took his bread crust and scudded away, rapping lyrics to a dated G-Unit song called “Gangsta Shit” that he heard from a car radio once.
Jack responded with a pained, “Wow man, what’s with the hostility?” as he fell to the ground.
Sewer Rat Jack had heard of Castro Gash before. Alleyway rats think they’re tough shit. His reputation made it all the way down to the tunnels and his trademark villainy: a nasty gash. He wasn’t in it for the kill; he was in it for the trademark.
Perhaps that is how poor Jack survived his first knifing: the gash didn’t dig deep enough. While he lay there in the dark—body upturned, belly bleeding out—he was grateful that at least his death was eventful, tragic even. But what of my legacy, he wondered, and wept existentially.
Jack thought he was dying nobly, in quiet, when in fact he was squealing hysterically, which is how his friends, Subterranean Hypebeast Howie and bb-Rattail Bobo, found him. Howie was wandering around, spreading the word about a rat-rave coming up that night, saying things like, “It’s going to be hype, but also chill.”
Bb Bobo was following, pitching the occasional, “Yeah, baby, yeah,” in agreement, when they recognized Jack’s pained squeal.
Upon seeing him wounded and bleeding out, Subterranean Hypebeast Howie immediately reverted to an angry, “I’m going to get the motherfucker that did this,” punching the air with fisted paws.
“It was Castro Gash,” Jack bemoaned.
“Oh my god,” Bobo drawled. “Alleyway rats think they’re tough shit.”
“It’s okay, it’s okay. I have a piece of floss hidden away somewhere. Listerine too—some quality shit. I’ll stitch you up Jack. Don’t worry. The scarring will look dope,&rdrdquo; Howie said.
“Oh yeah, baby,” Bobo nodded his head along.
However, both rats were too weak, due to a total lack of regular physical exertion, to lift Jack, so they pushed and pulled him along the tunnel floor.
On the way, they passed Sage the Sophist, who, seeing them, said, “Oh my god,” pointing to Jack. “This is no chill.”
Jack explained, “Knifing.”
Howie added, “Castro Gash, that copy cattin’ gangster motherfuckin’ rat.”
“Ugh, bummer,” Sage said.
“It’s okay, I have some floss. Listerine—it’s good shit. We’ll stitch him up nice. You want to watch?”
“No. Apparently some rats over in the east side tunnel are exhibiting an art piece. I’m going to go check it out.”
In actual fact, the rats in the east side tunnel had stumbled upon a patch of sunlight leaking in through a sewage grate at sunset, making a pleasing pattern on the wall. By the time Sage got there, the sun had set, as had the art piece.
“Tight,” Howie said, and the rats went their separate ways.
Howie and Bobo sewed Jack up with the string of Listerine floss and a toothpick splinter, but Jack still felt he needed something for the pain. There was a manhole nearby that they frequented in the evenings because every night a stoner-stranger would smoke a joint by myself above it, and if they got close enough and breathed it in for a while they would get absolutely sheeshed.
Howie said, “I have something better.”
When Sewer Rat Jack had first met Subterranean Hypebeast Howie and bb-Rattail Bobo, the latter titled after his stunted tail and his profuse use of the word “baby” (often with a flirtatious inflection), Howie had made a point of telling Jack:
“On Thursdays we rave.”
Howie would always say how there were so many girls at rat-raves—“Techno gets girls feeling some type of way, you know what I mean?” Sage would always say how rat-raves were lame, and how she’d rather feed her brain, so in the past, Jack had abstained, but that night he was already feeling loopy, and Hypebeast Howie kept saying, “It’ll be hype,” so with blood thin and ego bruised, he agreed.
Part Two: Rat Rage in the Rat Cave
Bobo insisted that he had to get ready first.
“What do you mean?” Jack asked, covered head to toe in dried blood, and beginning to feel insecure about his new devil-may-care demeanor.
Bobo fished a scrap of fabric out from his small clump of possessions. He tied the scrap, which had five loosely sewn highlighter pink sequins on it, around his snout.
“Bobo, what the fuck is that?” asked Jack.
“My friend took me to a clothing donation bin above ground. I chewed this off of a shirt I found. It’s called thrifting.”
“Why are you covering your snout? How are you supposed to be able to smell?”
“It’s a rave mask, baby.”
“That’s tight, Bobo,” Howie approved.
On the way to the rat-rave, Howie took Jack and Bobo to a secluded spot. A group of rats were huddled around each other—some were convulsing in strange ways, others were lying on their backs, eyes to the ceiling, totally dazed. Two rats were wiggling their tails, eyes closed, paws gyrating through the air, seeming to dance, although no music could be heard.
“MDMA,” Howie explained. “This cap’s a legend—lasted us six years so far. You have to be careful though—one speck, just one.”
“Yas, baby, yas!” Bobo exclaimed.
Jack, already feeling witless, and always suspecting that a drug experience would cultivate his sense of spiritual enlightenment, said, “Yeah man, let’s do this.”
All three rats carefully separated one particle of MDMA from the cracked capsule, and licked it up. They were immediately jacked up, caramelized brains, tweaking limbs, zonked out, skittish veins, and totally wrecked. The three of them danced to the beat of a series of water droplets leaking from the ceiling for an unreasonable length of time. Finally, Howie, hopping from one foot to another said, “Let’s rave.”
Upon arriving at the scene, Howie nodded in approval. “Turn out’s good.”
There were twelve rats present; one other rave mask could be spotted. There were two females total, trying to evade the surrounding males. A 1998 Walkman was playing early 2000s Euro-techno beats through thick speakers that muffled the sound and played at a volume only loud enough for animals cat-sized and smaller.
“Sony speakers—very impressive,” Howie nodded.
Jack looked around and everything was beautiful and he was complete and no longer searching, and he knew that everything he was was enough. Awash in a small sea of rats, nothing else mattered except that they dance to the flow of old techno. There was a rat spinning, bending, booty clapping and snapping his rotund body around a large upturned rusty nail as if it were a stripper pole. Jack recognized the pulsating gut-bellied body as Guadalupe.
Guadalupe didn’t have a title or nickname, which would normally be considered lame, but everyone agreed his name was enough on its own, and whenever he approached or walked by everyone nearby would shout, Heeey Guada-Guada-Guada, and he would shake his skinny tail to the rhythm of their chanting—that was his signature. However, that night, Guadalupe had a whole cannon of dance moves ready to fire and he was letting them blow. Jack watched Guada shake it on the pole for a while and thought, good for you man.
Jack was dancing next to a chewed up and leaking glow stick. There was a slow rat nearby, barely moving except for the occasional flick of the tail. Jack asked him, “You good man?”
The dreamy rat said, “Yeah man, I’m just grooving.”
Jack wiggled a little closer. “I’m Sewer Rat Jack.”
The spacey rat opened his eyes a little wider. “No way man! I’m Sewer Rat Phil,” and just like that, Jack’s drug world and happy high came to a cruel halt.
“That’s a lame fucking name man. That doesn’t rhyme or alliterate.”
“Wow man, what’s with the hostility?”
“I’m Sewer Rat Jack. You can’t be Sewer Rat Phil.”
“It’s pretty cool if you ask me,” Phil said and closed his eyes again to resume his sleepy dance moves.
Jack thought, my god, all this time I’ve been calling myself Sewer Rat Jack, not realizing how vague that was—how we’re all sewer rats, how I barely have an identifier.
So Jack, undergoing an identity crisis while coming down from his high, wiggled over to a puddle on the ground with a little sign above it that read, Rubing Alcool. Howie seemed to appear beside Jack like a floating head and advised him, “Be careful. Just one lick. It’s the Life brand—that’s strong shit.”
Jack lapped up a touch of the rubbing alcohol and was straight sloshed in a matter of minutes. The night became both blurry and clear and Jack looked around and spotted Bobo doing some freaky shit on the dance floor with the two females present, mumbling, “Mmm, baby, mmm,” and he was happy again. He did a little tango and playful tussle with the surrounding pack, smacked his ass straight down on the dance floor once more and temporarily shed his worries. Perhaps that is how Sewer Rat Jack survived his first identity death: a total evasion of reality.
Part Three: Sage Throwing Shade and the Sewage Squad Comedown
Jack awoke alone, no longer sure of who he was or what to call himself. His stomach was tattered, the sloppily sewn stitches further loosening out of his fur, and he thought that perhaps these scars weren’t quite as cool as Howie had led him to believe.
He recalled his memories of the night in halves. He awoke with a bruise surrounding his eye and he suspected Howie was the inflictor, but wasn’t sure why; he remembered screaming, “TECHNO SUCKS” in very poor timing (right after the bass dropped); he believed he fucked a girl last night, but then remembered that there were only two girls present, and started to get the feeling he might have fucked Guadalupe instead. He just couldn’t know. What resonated most, with both clarity and conviction, was the memory of Sewer Rat Phil.
Jack found Sage not far away chewing on a discarded Eggo half. She darted him a disapproving look.
“I don’t like your look lately.” Sage had gone thrifting with Bobo and picked up a human infant-sized sock, which she chewed earholes in to make a toque. Baby Girl was stitched across the forehead, but bb Bobo helped Sage unstitch most of the letters until BbG was all that remained.
“I just think this is a transitional period of my life, okay?”
“You know I read once that how you present yourself is considered a moral responsibility because it determines how others will perceive those like you—you’re failing our species by looking so lame.”
“Where did you read that?”
“I don’t know.”
“You didn’t read that.”
“Yes, I did.”
Shit, Jack thought. That explains why everyone’s been thrifting lately.
Howie and Bobo interrupted, rushing in with a human hand-sized gun balanced between them.
Howie, out of breath, said, “I got a gat.”
“What?” Jack asked.
“I got a gat.”
“Why are you calling it that?”
“We’re going to get Castro Gash, that motherfuckin’ wannabe thug rat back for what he did to you. By the way, I like your look. Those stitches really pulled through.”
“I don’t know, there’s been some discolouration,” Jack said, running his claws along his infected belly. “And wait, what the fuck, man? What’s with the hostility? What do we need a gun for?”
“It’s a gat. We’re going to assassinate Castro Gash.”
Sage walked away and no one noticed. Bobo was puckering his lips in discomfort, but was ultimately down with the idea of murder, and Jack kept saying “No man,” and Howie kept saying, “C’mon,” and this went on for some time until it occurred to Jack that he might, with this one act, steal Castro Gash’s title as the gangster rat (but the tunnel version—even more underground and shady), plus then he could remain a naked sinner without shame.
Part Four: Revenge of Waste Manz on Alleyway Trash Gash
The gat turned out to be a stylish lighter. They learned this when Bobo stuck his short tail in the fake barrel, giggling to himself, and Howie pulled the trigger—not because he wanted to hurt Bobo, but because he didn’t actually know how to work a gun (or a lighter). A flame ate up Bobo’s tail, leaving a stain of ass scarring and a lonely nub. Howie had to spend the rest of the night searching for rubbing alcohol (and he did indeed find a sign that read rub rub hol, but it turned out to be some sort of sexual service) and a bandage, which ended up being Bobo’s sequined rave mask. Bobo spent the night moaning many words, none of which were “baby.”
Their assassination plot spoiled, Jack went to the manhole where he could breathe in that quality kush. High and alone, he decided, fuck it, I’m still going to go.
Sewer Rat Jack, above ground for the first time in many rat years, breathed in the fresh air and gravitated toward the trash tainted oxygen. Behind an alleyway dumpster, Jack spotted Castro Gash and his gang. Castro Gash beat his front paw against a battered old Nokia cellphone and a ten second loop of a Gucci Mane song played. All the rats bobbed their heads.
Jack was stoned and not feeling particularly confrontational, but mustered the courage to crawl out of the dumpster shadows. He walked straight up to Castro Gash and gave him a meager smack, mid head-bob.
“Oh nah nah nah. This guy has the nerve to show up in my alleyway,” said Castro Gash and his rat gang rallied around him.
“You took my bread crust,” Jack said.
“Phil, I’m done with your shit—”
“Phil? No. Sewer Rat Jack. It’s Jack.”
“Ooo shit man. I thought you were Phil. Someone told me you were Phil.”
“Is that why you knifed me? I thought you just wanted my bread crust.”
“No man, I was totally looking for Phil. You guys look a lot alike. You should do something about that.”
“Well fuck that guy,” Jack said, his face sunken to the ground. “He should do something about that.”
“Yeah, Phil sucks,” Castro Gash nodded.
“Phil’s no chill,” some other rat agreed.
“I mean, his name’s Phil,” another added.
“Right?” Jack said. Jack thought maybe he and Castro Gash could be friends after all; maybe he could be Jack the Alleyway Rat, never to be confused with Phil. He tried to bob his head along to Gucci Mane but couldn’t get the rhythm right.
However, Castro Gash, face smacked and reputation on the line, decided to gash Jack in the belly a second time (for the trademark).
Jack, somehow surprised and falling down once more, whined, “Man, quit it with the hostility.”
Castro Gash leaned over Jack and said, “You’re waste manz.”
Another rat spit on Jack and said, “Die hipster scum.”
Jack, finally fed up, mumbled, “Man, fuck titles, man,” as Castro Gash and his gang bounced away to Gucci Mane.