‘Brown Paper Bag’ by Blake Patrick Swan

brown paper bag

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

The collective standing of forty civil servants in unison either signals lunch or end of day. Right now, it’s lunch. Today Jared is not among those rising. For him, lunch is no longer a moment of euphoria the way it is for his coworkers. 

Jared didn’t always dread lunch. A short while ago, he had stood with the rest of them, and had walked with swinging arms and a gum-revealing smile on his way to eat a lunch he had been thinking about for hours. Lunch had offered Jared the opportunity to step away from the penetrating blue light of his computer screen, to quiet his stomach, and to enjoy half an hour of oral stimulation. Nowadays, lunch only offers Jared a short break from the tedium of his cubicle. Nothing more. 

The problem began with a grocery store run-in with an old acquaintance, and the fair amount of shaming that followed due to the ground beef and chicken breasts that sat in the upper deck of his cart. The interaction only came to an end when Jared agreed to watch a Netflix documentary on the meat industry. And from the moment he got home and pressed play, things spiralled out of control. That night, all of the newly purchased meat in his fridge—save for the fried chicken he ate during the documentary—met the black plastic of a garbage bag. It didn’t stop there. Each night, he watched a new documentary. Each night, he emptied his cupboards a little more.

In a matter of weeks, Jared had watched every food-related, environment-related, or toxin-related documentary on Netflix. By the end of it, Jared hardly recognized his own life. 

Jared’s lunch served as a microcosm of the changes he had made. His lunches now contained very little. Partly because it’s tough to find organic, gluten-free, non-GMO, non-waste producing, sugar-less food, and partly because Jared’s new method of bringing his lunch to work drastically limited the amount of food he could bring. You see, in an effort to avoid any single-use packaging, as well as the toxins in reusable plastic, Jared had begun carrying his lunch to work in his bare hands. This made soup a difficult dish for him to bring, and he was forced to stop riding his bike in the mornings, not having mastered the no-hands turn. 

When Jared arrives at work in the morning, he empties his hands on his desk. And that is where his food sits in two little piles until lunch. Today those piles consist of carrot sticks—grown in his own garden—and a lump of pumpkin seeds, unsalted and unroasted. Scooping his lunch up into his hands, he joins his colleagues in the lunchroom. The lunchroom has begun to look the same each day he enters it. Everyone overcrowds the round tables, and people are pressed together uncomfortably, knee to knee, and their garbage takes up each square inch of table surface. But every day, the same table, appropriately sized for four, remains empty, with only one chair left beside it. 

Jared isn’t naïve or oblivious. He knows that the daily empty table is no coincidence. He knows that the others have become tired of his judgmental and didactic conversations. That they’ve grown sick of his glaring eye watching their chicken wings and Styrofoam takeout containers and salivating mouths. He knows that they all just want to enjoy their lunch in peace. 

But today is different. Today the lunchroom dynamics are altered just slightly because of a new hire. And coming into the lunchroom late, she sees the table occupied by a single person as the obvious choice. She takes an empty chair away from a neighbouring table and slides it beside Jared’s. 

“May I sit?” she asks.

Jared is caught off guard, and after he acknowledges that someone is, in fact, willing to sit with him, he responds: “of course!”

She places her brown paper bag down on the table, and she eyes Jared’s dry carrots and wet seeds. “Looks like you’re almost done here anyway,” she says with a smile.

Jared cracks into a carrot stick, and close-mouth smiles back. 

Jared’s guest unfolds her brown paper bag and relieves it of its contents. He watches closely with a curious eye. First comes a granola bar wrapped in shiny, metallic plastic. A Wonder Bread sandwich inside a plastic sandwich bag comes next. And lastly, she takes out a yogurt cup. 

Jared stares with contempt at the dairy product packaged in a single-use plastic cup. So much wrong in such a tiny cup, he thinks. Misremembered stats run rampant through his mind. 

Jared continues his watch as she pulls the sandwich slightly out of the bag, grips the plastic on either side, and bites eagerly into the bread. She chews and swallows, and Jared thinks he sees a smile while she does so. Then, as if she’s just remembered something, she blurts out: “I’m Carley, by the way.”

Jared manufactures a polite smile and responds: “I’m Jared.”

“Nice to meet you, Jared,” Carley says cheerfully before she bites into her sandwich again. 

Jared attempts to return his attention back to his own lunch, alternating between carrot sticks and pumpkin seeds. He still hasn’t gotten used to the pumpkin seeds, and he finds them tough to chew. Their presence in his mouth seems never-ending, like a stick of gum. Every few minutes he needs to get up to stick his mouth under the tap in the lunchroom sink to wash things down. Jared’s hunger grows as his piles of food shrink. 

It’s either his own hunger he can focus on, or the unethical food being consumed across from him. His mind chooses the latter. Watching and thinking about all that is wrong with what she is doing, the urge to inform Carley of her near-sighted decisions grows within Jared, like the fruit fly population around his compost pile. She needs to know. How can he not tell her? How can he stand by and let her be ignorant to so much? But if he does say something, he risks driving her off. He risks returning to an empty table the next day. 

Maybe he can fight off the urge. Maybe he can let her enjoy her food with a smile, and he can enjoy sitting next to that smile. 

Jared manages to stay quiet. He holds his thoughts in like he did his bowel movements during the first few weeks of his diet change. He watches her peel open the top of her yogurt. He bites his inner cheek, and he sees her look around the table with confusion. An audible, oh! followed by a hand back in the brown paper bag. What more does she have? he wonders. And that’s when it happens. She takes out a plastic spoon, and Jared can’t hold back any longer.

His thoughts flow from his mind like a surge after the breaking of a dam. They show up in his mouth as words, and he can’t swallow them. Out they come. 

“You know, there’s a great documentary about plastic use in everyday life that you should watch. It’s really quite informative,” Jared says with both a level of enthusiasm and a feeling of superiority that he cannot hide. 

Carley takes the spoon out of her mouth. “Oh, really? I’d totally watch that.”

“Great!” Jared quickly replies, surprised by her enthusiastic response. “I’ll write down the name of the film for you.”

“Perfect!”

Jared sits back in his chair. The internal struggle has passed. He no longer has to worry about informing her about the issues related to the plastic she’s using. But his body is still tense as he watches Carley finish her yogurt. His eyes are no longer on the spoon, but on what it holds. 

“You know, there’s also another really good one on dairy consumption.”

“Oh, yeah? Maybe I’ll have to watch that one as well.”

“Definitely!”

Carley finishes the last of her meal and starts to pack up. Jared can’t help himself. “Oh, and one about non-organic oats.”

Carley takes a little longer to respond this time, but as she stands up from the table, and places her chair back where she found it, she says: “Ok, I’ll have to get the titles from you some time. Nice meeting you.”

“I’ll send you an email,” Jared calls out as she’s walking away.

Jared doesn’t hear a response, but he doesn’t need one. Getting up from the table he washes his hands at the sink, takes a quick sip from the running water, and dries his dripping hands on the front of his dress shirt. Scurrying to his cubicle with zeal, he opens his email and starts a new draft. He ignores the email address for now, fills in the subject field, MUST WATCH, and jumps to the body of the email. He sits there with a wet shirt stuck to his chest and a growling stomach, and he types out the list with vigour. 

The list goes well past three. 

 


BLAKE PATRICK SWAN is a writer from Sudbury, Ontario. He holds degrees in literature from St. Francis Xavier University and Lakehead University. Having recently graduated, he now occupies a sessional professor position at Cambrian College. He is currently  working on a collection of short stories that examine hypermasculinity in rural Canadian areas. 

Copyright © 2018 by Blake Patrick Swan. All rights reserved.

‘Somewhere with a Pool Table’ by Clayton Longstaff

pool table

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

She had just started washing the cutlery when the phone rang. She pulled a towel off the oven handle and used it to lift the telephone from its receiver.

“Hello?”

“Hey, is this Emily?” It was a woman’s voice. “It’s Vera from the gym.”

“Vera! You used my number.”

“Yeah,” she said. “And it’s not a fake! What are you doing this weekend?”

“Nothing,” Emily said. “What’s up?”

“I don’t know. How does drinks sound? What’s Nick up to?”

“Great, drinks sound great.” Emily tried to remember Vera’s face, and wondered if they would recognize each other in normal clothes. “But Nick hasn’t been doing too well,” she said. “I’d love to though.”

“Great,” said Vera. They agreed to talk again on Friday, and Emily placed the telephone back to its receiver, careful not to let it slip from the towel.

***

Emily got off work at 3 on Friday. On her way home from the diner she pulled over at the liquor store. She placed a bottle on the checkout counter and searched for her wallet. “That’s all,” Emily said. “Thanks.” She handed the cashier a twenty. 

There was nobody behind her when she reached their driveway, so she didn’t bother with the signal before pulling in. Nick’s socked foot resting on the sofa’s back was visible from the road.

“Hi honey,” she said walking directly to the kitchen and putting the bottle in the cupboard.

“Good day?” He shifted from his back onto his arm.

“Fine,” she said. “It isn’t finished though.” She pulled a glass from the cupboard and ran the water from the sink a few moments before filling the glass. “I’m so pissed,” she said. “Do you remember Dana?”

“Dana?”

“Maybe you haven’t met her,” she said between sips. “She’s a new girl. You probably haven’t met her yet.”

“Oh.” 

“She called in sick.” Emily filled another cup of water. “Did Vera call?”

“Who?”

“Vera.”

“Oh yeah, she did call,” he said. 

“And?”

“I said to call back.”

“Hm.” Emily opened the fridge. “We’re going for a drink this weekend,” she said. “She’s a girl I go to the gym with—super sweet girl. We’re thinking of going to that place you used to go to. She insists on a place with a pool table.” She laughed. “I don’t know who she thinks she’s going to play pool with.”

“I’m busy.” Nick started shifting on the couch and sunk back when he found the remote.

“Great.” She closed the fridge and moved into the bedroom to look through her clothes. 

He changed the channel from Nascar, to the Nature channel, and then to a BBC program. He raised one knee and bent the other off the cushion to fit, then messed it all up to reach for his cigarettes from the coffee table and an old cup to ash in. Emily was back in the kitchen looking in the fridge when the phone rang.

***

The next evening Emily was back at work. Nick grew tired of waiting, so he went into the bathroom. After splashing water on his face, he looked in the mirror. Then he closed his eyes and looked again.  He’d go to the place he used to go and have a bite before Emily was finished work, he decided. 

Nick took a seat at the bar and stood up to take off his jacket. He didn’t recognize the bartender. 

“Kitchen still open?” 

“Yessir,” said the bartender. “A server will come around in a minute.” He placed a laminated menu in front of Nick from over the bar. “Need a drink in the meantime?” 

Nick looked at the taps. “Yeah,” he said. “Your stout.” 

The waitress came around and Nick ordered a hamburger and potato wedges, and before she could ask, he said “garlic mayo.”

When the bartender asked how he was doing, Nick nodded his head and raised a finger. The bartender waited. “Does”—he finished swallowing. “Does Joe still work here?” he asked.

“Yessir,” the bartender said. “Joe got switched to days.” 

“Oh,” Nick said. 

“You know Joe?” 

“Yeah, I know Joe. Hey,” he said. “What about Vera?” He dipped another potato wedge and rubbed it around the ramekin of garlic mayo. “Does a girl named Vera still come in here?”

The bartender shook his head slowly and pinched his lips. “Vera,” he said. “I can’t think of any Veras.” The bartender made eye contact with a man who walked through the door and smiled. He started pouring a pint and said, “but I don’t know the names of everybody.” He placed the pint in front of the man who sat a few seats down from Nick. 

Nick finished his wedges and used the napkin. He looked back at the pool table and scanned the bar for any faces he might have missed, then he got up and pulled on his coat.

Nick could see the lights in the kitchen were on from the road. He began unbuttoning the top of his coat. The door was unlocked.

“He exists!” Vera said, raising her arms in mock surprise when he walked into the kitchen. He walked over to Emily and touched her back while he made his way to Vera who stood up to shake his hand with a sergeant general’s face on. 

Nick smiled at her. “Nice to see you,” he said.  “You must be Vera, right?” 

“I am! Nice to finally meet you; Emily has told me so much.” She tugged at the bottom of her dress that had ridden up and loosened her shoulders. “Emily was just telling me a story from her work.” She sat back down and picked up the glass she was holding before.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Some guy who preferred to be shot at than to be with his own family.”

“Nick knows all the stories,” Emily interjected.

“I don’t know if I know this one,” Nick said. “Hey, what are you girls drinking?” He went over to the cupboard.

“Jack and ginger,” Vera said.

“I thought you were busy,” Emily said from behind her glass. Nick broke out a few cubes from the ice tray.

“What happened to playing pool?” Nick asked. 

“Vera met me at work. I wanted to drop off the car, so we figured we’d have a drink here.”

“There’s always later,” Vera said. “Now, the story.”

 “Yeah, I know.” Emily took in a mouthful of whiskey. “So, this guy goes to Iraq, right? He goes to fight in the war and leaves his wife and kids at home.” 

Nick crossed the kitchen floor with his glass and pulled up a seat at the table.

 “Then he comes back, all in one piece.” Emily picked up her glass from the table and leaned back a little. “Boring story, heh?” She lifted the cup back to her lips and took another sip. “But that’s not all.” 

“Oh my.” Vera put down her glass. 

“No,” Emily said. “The thing is, is that the man went back! He went back to Iraq! He missed getting shot at I suppose.” 

“He went back?” 

“He missed being in the war, so he went back. Can you imagine?” she asked. “Can you imagine the kids? The wife, and the kids?”

Vera shook her head. She narrowed her eyes into slits. “What do you mean he went back?”

“I mean he went back! I don’t know,” Emily said. “I guess he said he got something at war he couldn’t get at home.”

Vera shook her head.

 “I can’t imagine.” Emily looked down and started picking at something on her sleeve.  “Anyway, it was the poor wife who told me this.”

Nick got up from his seat and left to the bathroom.

“That’s terrible.”

“Yeah.” Emily stopped picking at her sleeve. “I don’t know. You never really know, do you?” She went to the freezer.

“It’s true. You really don’t.”

Emily was breaking more ice when Nick came from the bathroom. “Never know what?” he asked.

Emily replied with her back to him. “Who the man you marry will become.” She turned and raised her eyebrows at Vera, but Vera was looking away.

Nick got up after sitting down and put his cup into the sink. Outside was still dark. He tried to remember if there was snow this time last year but couldn’t seem to place it. 

***

After that night, Emily spent less time at home. Nick was on the couch each day Emily came home from work. “Nothing yet?” she’d ask.

“We’ll see,” he’d say. “We’ll see.”

Nick was spending less time at home, too. After the first snow, he decided he needed warmer socks if he was going to go out looking for a job, so he took the car out before Emily had to leave for work. He drove out to a department store on the edge of town. Coming out of the store he threw the bag into the trash and wore the lined socks over his hands across the parking lot. He went at his pockets for the keys, but his hands were too big, so he tucked the socks under his arm while he opened the door and ducked into his car. 

The snow had melted into a small muddy puddle down at the pedals by the time he turned his car off on the street outside the bar. He kept one hand rested on the steering wheel as he read the advertisements hanging in the window, remembering that he had once actually gone to a Karaoke Thursday—he had once actually come for the Happy Hour Special. The posters were so faded that it seemed impossible the advertisements could still be applicable. He tried to see through the other window but all he could make out were the neon lights of the video slot machine screens near the front and the light that hung low over the pool table. The rest was dark. He stepped out onto the sidewalk and locked the car. 

The view of Vera sitting at the farthest end of the bar entered Nick’s vision like a warm distant memory tethered to a smile, which she flashed up at him at the sound of the bar room door as it crept shut. The pool table in the corner stood empty. 

It was hours before Nick finally got the car home. Fitting the key into the lock, he noticed he couldn’t hear the television. Inside, the lights were all turned off. He tossed his socks onto the couch and went to the kitchen table, but there was no note. So, he went to the telephone. The last call was to the diner, and the call before that was from the previous day. Crumbs were all over the counter. Nick sunk his hands into his jacket pockets to feel for his keys and carried his new socks from the couch to his bedroom, stopping in at the bathroom to look at his face in the mirror. 

He could hear the engine still ticking as he locked up the house. Nick found Vera’s car still parked across the street from the bar with a light coat of snow blanketing the windshield. He pulled into his same parking spot out front and killed the engine.

Meanwhile, at the diner Janice was busy telling Emily about the elderly couple seated at table 13. She tilted her head a little in the table’s direction while tearing out a leaf from her note pad. Janice was always talking about the customers. Emily didn’t know of any coworkers who took notice like Janice did. “They don’t tip,” she was saying. “They don’t come in during the day, but you’ll see them when you work nights.” She tucked the order slip beside the others and started to untie her apron. “Honey I swear,” she said. “It ain’t you. They just don’t tip.”

“Oh,” Emily said. “Okay.”

“Yeah. Somethin’ must’ve happened and they still come by here, but they won’t tip. Honey,” she said. “Trust me, it ain’t you.” She said she was going on break so good luck. 

Emily lifted a pitcher of water from the counter and carried it over to the sallow looking elderly couple then to another table where a large man in a suit read the menu carefully. When Emily was coming back from the tables, she switched the water pitcher for a coffee pot, and carried it over to an older gentleman in a tweed blazer who’d been sitting at the bar with a paper a few seats from where Janice sat down. While Emily filled his cup, she felt Janice’s eyes follow her. Emily brought over a cup and a dish of creamers and sugars and placed them on the counter. 

“Thanks darling,” she smiled up at Emily. 

After she brought the food out to all her tables, Emily carried a glass of water over to Janice and took a sip. “Can I ask you something silly?” 

Janice crossed her arms on the counter and pulled her seat closer using her ankles.

“What’s it like to be married?”

“What’s it like?” Janice asked. “What is it like? You and Nick are married, aren’t you? I always thought you were married.” 

Emily shook her head and brought the coffee pot over to the older gentleman. “No,” Emily said, coming back to Janice. “We aren’t. I guess it isn’t any different though.”

“No, exactly,” Janice said. She said it really wasn’t much different. 

“It’s strange though. I feel different. It’s funny to say, but I really feel different.”

“You don’t say,” Janice said. “And just how are you feelin’?

“Well,” she lifted the coffee pot up to Janice, but Janice shook her head. “Okay, so,” she said, putting the coffee pot back. “So, this might be really crazy, but I sort of have this feeling like everything is about to change. I feel like really everything might be about to change.” 

“So, what’s the big change?” Janice said. She leaned a little farther onto the counter, grinning.

“So, the other night, after I had this new girlfriend of mine over—we had a few drinks, whatever. Then, after she left, Nick and I went to bed. But something was different. It felt—” she slowed down in her speech, trying to better express how it was different. “When he was on me in bed like, it felt like I was looking in on a younger lady’s life.” She put her hands on her stomach, and Janice put her hands to her mouth. 

“It’s weird, right?” Emily smiled. “I know, it sounds crazy, but I really think things are about to change.” She picked up her cup of water. “But I’ve been off, too. I’ve been feeling really off these last weeks.” She flashed a look down at her stomach, which she pushed out a little and laughed with Janice. Emily brought the cup to her lips, then hesitated. “It’s crazy, right?” she said. “Isn’t it just crazy?”

 


CLAYTON LONGSTAFF is a short story writer and poet from Victoria, BC, currently studying English Literature at Concordia University, Montreal. 

Copyright © 2018 by Clayton Longstaff. All rights reserved.

‘Wish Book’ by John Tavares

Wish Book.jpg

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

The carols, decorations, and glitter drove Marko to anger. His bank account was empty, his worn wallet filled with tattered receipts, his mail full of unpaid bills. He couldn’t believe how broke he had become. He expected he’d find a job by now, but he felt as if no organization wanted to hire a paramedic. He needed to move faraway to a town in Northwestern Ontario and work as an air paramedic, but he was afraid of flying and didn’t want to leave Toronto. These days he felt his training was worthless. Years elapsed since he graduated from college, but he found no work as a paramedic; he worked part-time at a group home for people with intellectual disabilities. 

After two years of unemployment, having attended college full-time for three, he decided to try to work in public transit. He pinned his hopes on a job as a train operator with public transit, which paid well, but the interviewer was turned off by his style and conservative dress—his hand-me-down shoes and double-breasted suit. He erred on the side of caution, but it backfired with managers. The interview was a train wreck; he couldn’t conceal his disappointment, when he pounded his fist on the manager’s desk, since he felt desperate to land a union position, with contract guarantees. He even enjoyed commuting on public transit; he studied for most of his emergency medicine courses on the subway train to Centennial College. The idea of operating a subway train appealed to him, but afterwards he called human resources and the assistant said they had filled all vacant positions. 

Now, with Christmas a few days away, he didn’t have the funds to buy Ivana the Guess handbag she wanted. Ivana, too, was struggling. She was working like him, casual shifts and holiday weekends at a group home, but she also found a part-time job as a cleaner at a hospital. The group home had promised them both full-time jobs, but they barely paid their personal support workers minimum wage. Both employers had promised full-time jobs, but a conservative party was elected, and these organizations were government funded non-profit agencies, who expected job and budget cuts. 

He needed to find the funds to buy Ivana her Guess handbag now. He ransacked the piggy banks and coin jars he left hidden around the cramped apartment, in the rambling neo-Victorian mansion. He took a box of hardcover and academic health science books that he’d bought for college courses over to a second-hand bookstore, but the money he received in return was barely enough for a bag of groceries. Thinking he needed to take desperate measures, he remembered his friend Danny, a fellow paramedic student, who, alongside Marko, was in one of the paramedic crews that responded to a multi-vehicle pileup on the Highway 491 with numerous gruesome casualties. Afterwards, Danny was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He ended up driving a taxi and often visited Marko in his apartment. He expressed surprised when he saw Marko take antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication. Danny thought it was a blessing that Marko couldn’t find work as a paramedic. He constantly replayed the scene of the gruesome expressway accident to Marko. Danny told him he could sell his prescription drugs for a profit. Marko told him he didn’t want to become involved in a criminal enterprise. A year later, Marko was broke and felt he could not depend on anyone, including his father, who died from agonizing cancer, medication helped alleviate. Days before the Christmas holidays, Marko still wanted to treat Ivana special, even during hard times. 

He went through the clutter of creams, lotions, colognes, perfumes, deodorants, razors, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and prescription drugs in the medicine cabinet. A while ago, Danny told him he could sell the Prozac and Xanax for a tidy profit, but Marko had only a few left now, since he used the peachy pills, which he considered a lifesaver in stressful situations. He realized his mother probably had more prescription drugs, after his father suffered a prolonged and agonizing illness from prostate cancer that metastasized to his lung, liver, and brain.  Aside from undergoing chemotherapy, his father became a patient in palliative care at home. To alleviate his suffering, he used prescription painkillers and sleep medications before he died. Marko’s mother had a tendency to keep everything, from grocery receipts to utility bills from decades ago to prescription medication, beyond the best before or expiry date. Marko decided to pay his mother a surprise visit—he took the subway to his mother’s house just off Bloor Street West, near the coffee shop where he once did his high school homework. 

* * *

After graduating from York University, Ivana acquired a teaching degree from the Faculty of Education at the University of Toronto. She couldn’t find a job as a teacher. She found the discipline in Toronto crowded with job seekers who couldn’t use their degrees in their chosen fields and competed for the few substitute teaching positions available with the Toronto school boards. She worked an overnight shift as a developmental services worker at the group home in Etobicoke for people with intellectual disabilities.  

Ivana kept asking Marko what he wanted for Christmas, but Marko wanted them to stick their pledge to abstain from giving Christmas gifts to each other as a pragmatic measure. Ivana insisted he tell her, or they wouldn’t make love that night. He told her that in an ideal world what he wanted for Christmas was an e-book reader. 

Ivana checked her bank account, but she was already over the limit in overdraft. She simply didn’t have the money to buy the e-book reader that Marko desired. She thought the idea of an e-book reader made perfect sense as well; both loved reading, but he spent more time reading, and read more books, faster. She was tired of hauling around boxes of books every time they were forced to move from one furnished room to another. With an e-book reader, all his bulky, heavy books, which consumed so much space in their living quarters, would find safe storage in digital files in the device memory, either in a flash drive or the micro-SD card.

She loved Marko. He loved her for her personality and intelligence, but they only became intimate after she wore a short tight skirt and a low-cut blouse at a Croatian soccer banquet in the church basement, so she suspected he was initially enamoured with her physicality. She remembered she even joked of working as a high-end escort when they had difficulty finding work, except she then found the prospect lamentable, loathsome, repulsive. Now she was reconsidering, and the idea seemed acceptable. 

She decided that if she was to afford a Christmas gift for him, she needed to hustle. She needed to advertise discreetly, but on the Internet, in classified ads, personals, women seeking men, et cetera. She looked at a website called Casual Encounters and placed a classified ad, trying to be hired as an escort and masseuse. She posted an advertisement offering super discreet personal services, including a massage with a happy ending. Within several hours, she had a response, and she quickly exchanged e-mails and text messages. Then she went to a house in the east end to make money. 

* * *

Marko snapped at his mother when she started asking about his personal life. She told him in Croatian he was better off moving back home, and his girlfriend was an unsuitable woman for someone as intelligent and promising as him. She wanted him to return home to save money and to apply to medical school at the University of Waterloo, so he could become a doctor. Ivana’s parents, she complained, were city slickers from Zagreb, who put on airs and pretended all their family and offspring were doctors, lawyers, bankers. 

“Mom, this is Toronto, and we’re both Canadian. Born and raised in boring Bloordale Village in Toronto. We met at Our Lady Queen of Croatia Church when we were teenagers, but that’s the end of it. We don’t even speak the language, hang out with your people, or go to church anymore.”

He listened to her worries about his diet. He looked thin. Was Ivana was feeding him properly? He explained he was mature enough to cook his own meals and wash his own laundry. He didn’t bother telling her he and his girlfriend were thinking of getting married in a civil ceremony at city hall. Even if she approved of their relationship, she would have been outraged they weren’t inviting the extended family, and disappointed they weren’t having a huge white wedding, a luxury they couldn’t afford for the foreseeable future. 

He went to use the washroom and found an empty bottle of OxyContin. Marko asked his mother about all the painkillers his father was forced to take to alleviate the symptoms of cancer. His mother told him the painkillers were still in his night table. She climbed up the stairs, slowly, carefully, and found the bottles of prescription painkillers, the synthetic opioids filled at the pharmacy the day his father died, he noted. His mother warned him about the painkillers, but asked no questions, since as far as she was concerned, her son could never do anything truly wrong. He put the prescription painkillers in his satchel bag, and headed to his apartment.

* * *

Ivana left a note, under a magnet on the refrigerator door, telling him that she had left the apartment to visit a friend. She intended to visit her first client. With only two days left until Christmas, time was running out, and she acted with a sense of urgency. 

* * *

Marko called his friend Danny, who told him he knew a stand-up guy who would buy the pills. Danny said he would set up a meeting for his friend from the paramedic program with the buyer at the Trapper Shack Burger restaurant, located near the intersection with Finch and Yonge Street, beside the 24-7 convenience store, a short walk from Shepherd subway station. The buyer would meet him shortly after midnight. 

At St. George subway station, Marko boarded a late-night subway train. During the commuter trip, he decided that if it took him a while to get acquainted with the buyer, and he missed the last southbound subway train, he would take the Blue Night bus service home back downtown. He hurried through the rain, which turned to sleet and snow, to the fast food restaurant. Cold, shivering, and anxious to use the washroom, he wished he had dressed warmer and had not drunk so much coffee. 

In fact, Marko felt so anxious that he took a lorazepam from his father’s medications. In the Trapper Shack Burger, Marko made a quick visit to the washroom, where a man, dressed in a heavy parka, insulated pants, a fur hat, and winter boots, warned him it was dangerous and the end was near. Outside the restaurant washroom, Danny introduced him to the prospective buyer and hurriedly left the fast food restaurant, after buying an ice cream cone. Danny’s quick exit into the gloomy weather made Marko more anxious. 

The man laughed, but Marko thought he was a gangster, a career criminal, which was partly what made him intimidating. He was bald, dressed in expensive distressed denim and polished loafers, and he looked like a member of the Russian mafia. The man then asked what he had, and Marko showed him the pill bottle.

“These looks like oxycodone,” he said. Holding the translucent bottle beneath the table, he examined the round tablets closely. He flashed the light from his smartphone on the contents. “You’ll sell these to me?” Marko nodded and mutely mouthed the word yes. 

“You’re under arrest for possession of narcotics for the purposes of trafficking.” The man held Marko’s arm with a firm grip as he flashed a driver’s license and went through his arrest procedure. He handcuffed him, and escorted him out of the Trapper Shack Burger restaurant and across the parking lot at the back to his black car.

 

* * *

Ivana went to the house on Yonge Street. She thought her client lived in quite an affluent neighbourhood, but when she arrived at the address she found a rundown house between a bicycle repair shop, and a Starbucks café. The man was dressed like a playboy and smelled of an expensive cologne, a subtle, nuanced, musky, yet appealing scent. He wore an elegant scarf, and he introduced himself as a filmmaker and movie producer. He asked if she wanted to join him on a road trip to a film festival in New York City during which he planned to visit Sofia Coppola.  

Then he asked her if she would give him a full body massage. She said she wasn’t an experienced masseuse, but she would do her best. He asked her if she would provide him with some oral pleasure.

“As in deep—”

“Yes, that would be even better.”

“My boyfriend likes it. How much are you willing to pay?”

Whatever her rates were, he replied, as long as they were reasonable.

Yes, of course, she said, and started to unbuckle, unbutton, and unzip his pants. He pulled out a leather wallet, opened the billfold, and showed her a shiny badge and his Toronto police identification. 

“You’re under arrest for communicating or attempting to communicate with a person for the purpose of engaging in or obtaining sexual services.” 

* * *

Standing alongside what looked like an unusual car for police, Marko decided to tell the officer the truth. The man frisked and searched him as he stood handcuffed to a Ford Mustang. 

“I was just trying to make enough money to buy my girlfriend a Christmas present. I haven’t been able to find a job.” Marko told him how depressing it was being unemployed, and the difficulty he had finding work in the field he trained for, paramedicine. With a criminal record, it would be impossible to find work as a paramedic, although he sometimes got the impression that the best paramedics were rogues and renegades, unafraid to go the extra distance to try to save a patient’s life. This was the first time he had ever been arrested or charged with anything. The man went into his car, while Marko stood handcuffed to the passenger door handle. After emerging several minutes later, the officer said that he checked his name in the database and found no hits. Marko thought it was unusual. He hadn’t heard a police radio, and hadn’t seen a laptop screen. 

“You’re lucky I haven’t called this in.” The man eyed the pills in their translucent bottle. He peeled the labels off with his sharp fingernails before he deposited the container in his leather bomber pocket. “You’re also lucky it’s practically Christmas eve.” Looking at his bejewelled wristwatch, the man saw the time was well past midnight. “In fact, it is Christmas eve.” His breath made a huge cloud of smoke in the freezing air as he exhaled, and with a sigh, he unlocked the handcuffs. “You’re a persuasive talker. I don’t know why you’re not working in communications.”

“I was trained as a paramedic.”

“Yeah, but a man has to eat. You could even work as a police dispatcher. Car 19, break-in at Finch and Jane, suspects fleeing on foot —something along those lines. Whatever, dude. I just don’t want to see you on my beat again. Get out of my sight.”

The man drove off with the painkiller pills, and sped through red lights at the intersection of Yonge with Finch Street. Thinking he had just stepped out of a house of mirrors, Mark thought he could use some pharmacological relief right about now. When he realized he never saw the man’s identification—he had merely seen the flash of what appeared to be a plain provincial driver’s license—he wondered if he’d just assumed the man possessed a badge, or if he was a retired, fired, or rogue cop. Perhaps he’d been an impersonator.

In the nighttime chill of the north end of North York, light snow drifted, powdering cement and asphalt. Marko walked down Yonge Street and underground into the subway station. The token and ticket collector shouted he’d missed the last subway train for the night.

Marko left the subway station, walked to the next bus stop, and boarded the all-night bus. The factory shift workers and pub-crawlers were already pushing their way through the standing crowd. He rode the bus home southbound along Yonge. In a meditative mood, he walked along Bloor Street through the falling snow to the apartment in the rambling, dilapidated Victorian mansion that he shared with Ivana.

* * *

When Ivana saw the undercover police officer’s identification, she gasped and told him she couldn’t find work in education because of an oversupply of teachers. She was currently making minimum wage and worked alongside high school dropouts hired off the street. She told him that if she was charged and had a criminal record, she would never pass a background check for a teaching position. She could even be fired from her current position. She had only decided to advertise to provide personal services this close to the holiday season to buy her boyfriend a silly e-book reader. She told the cop her boyfriend loved reading, but books were a major inconvenience whenever they were forced to move from house to apartment to rooming-house to student residence and dormitory and back again. 

The plainclothes officer told her he was separated from his wife because of his work, but he currently didn’t have any outlet whatsoever. He wondered if she would be able to provide him with some oral pleasure as a favor after all—one good deed deserving another. 

She couldn’t see any harm in the quid pro quo. The price was worth her freedom and reputation. In fact, a favour seemed like insurance against prosecution.

He drove her to an underground parking garage in a nearby office building, dark, empty, with dingy walls of cement blocks and cracked floors of concrete. He unbuckled and unzipped his khaki trousers and she reached for his shrivelled member, shrunken from the damp chill. 

* * *

Tipsy from liqueur and coffee, the couple decided to visit Our Lady Queen of Croatia Church for Midnight Mass. The gifts they received in parcels, wrapped in twine, from their parents, they regifted and exchanged with each other. For Christmas dinner, they walked to the sprawling McDonalds on Yonge Street, across from the strip club and comic bookstore. They ordered hamburgers and fries, and substituted hot coffee and sugar for iced Cokes.

Trying to reassure each other that their love was precious enough of a gift to each other, they decided in the future they’d celebrate Christmas without gift exchanges. For dessert, they feasted on apple pies—two for a dollar—and soft ice cream cones. Then they ordered more ice cream cones coated with crushed peanuts and candy cane sprinkles. They gorged themselves and ate yet another round of pies, which Ivana insisted were frozen apple turnovers reheated in a microwave oven. Afterwards, they felt so energized and celebratory that they broke into a food fight, which a few other customers happily joined in on, until they were all asked to leave by the manager. 

They passed by the Eaton Centre, where crews operating skyjacks and cranes took down the huge Sears sign for the department store. “The Wish Book is dead,” said Ivana. They hiked home through a storm growing into a blizzard. They climbed over drifts downtown, throwing snowballs, laughing, running along the sidewalk, and surprising people with hearty Christmas greetings. 

 


JOHN TAVARES was born & raised in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, and is the son of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. His education includes graduation from 2-year GAS at Humber College in Etobicoke with a concentration in psychology (1993), 3-year journalism at Centennial College in East York (1996) & the Specialized Honors BA in English from York University in North York (2012). He worked as a research assistant for the Sioux Lookout Public Library & as a research assistant in waste management for the SLKT public works department & regional recycle association. He also worked with the disabled for the Sioux Lookout Association for Community Living. Following a long time fascination with psychology, economics & investments, he successfully completed the Canadian Securities Course (2015).

Copyright © 2018 by John Tavares. All rights reserved.

‘Rifle’ by Conor DiViesti

Rifle

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

Pete held the bundle of white cloth and in it, the rifle. If someone were looking from far away as he stood knocking at Marta’s door, they might’ve thought he was offering her a bouquet of flowers. Barry, who had been Pete’s best friend until he’d stepped on an IED, had restored the weapon. It was a Ross 1905. Barry’s great-grandfather had carried it at Second Ypres. 

Pete and Barry used to glare at it as boys, craning their necks up to where it hung above the fireplace. They’d shot bottles with it back in high school, drunk as hell. Pete once considered that instance as the rifle’s most dangerous action since it’d been pointed at Germans. 

That wasn’t true anymore.

Marta opened the door, and didn’t pretend to smile. “Is that it?” Pete nodded to her. “Come in then.”

She sat him down at the kitchen table and Pete laid the rifle against the checkered tablecloth. He didn’t roll it out.

“I thought we were done with everything,” she said.

“We are,” said Pete. “I’m just bringing it back from the station. Investigation determined it wasn’t… you know.” Murder. No one had said the word, even when Pete had gone through the motions of questioning Luke; Marta’s boy. Barry’s boy. 

Garrett McCoy was dead; the rifle’s first victim in a hundred years. They all knew it was an accident. Pete was just doing his job by following up.

“I don’t want it,” said Marta. “You take it. Barry would’ve liked that.”

Pete broke eye contact. He looked down at his wrist where the red poppy tattoo poked out from the cuff of his police uniform. It was the only colour work he had in a collection of black and grey. He tugged at the cuff and covered it, but it wouldn’t stay put.

Outside the kitchen window, Ian McCoy sat on the deck. Ian and Luke were so close that seeing Ian alone was jarring. The kid was peculiar, a real dork. He always had some tactile hobby on the go, like magic tricks or winging a yo-yo while other freshly teenaged boys fiddled with electronics. He sat motionless now, with no gimmick in his hands. Ian squinted up at the sun, letting the spring wind rustle his hair. His older brother used to rustle his hair like that.

“I need to speak with him one more time.”

“Ian?” Marta asked. “Go ahead.”

“No,” said Pete. “Luke.” Marta lowered her head like a bull.

“He’s been through enough. They both have.”

“Christ, Marta, I know. He shot someone. I promised his dad I’d look out for him. Accident or not that’s going to—” Pete stopped cold. Marta’s fists clenched at the tablecloth, shifting the rifle gently in her direction. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say—”

“Go talk to him,” she interrupted. “When you’re done, I think it’s best you don’t come around for a while.”

#

Luke’s room was on the top floor of the house. Pete went in without knocking. Luke sat over a desk facing a window that looked out on the road. He was fiddling with a model tank. The poison stink of super glue hung heavy in the air. 

“You should open a window,” Pete said. Luke remained silent. Pete sat down on the bed near the desk. Beside Luke was a framed picture of soldiers posing in the desert. Pete realized Barry’s face would be among them and so didn’t look at it long enough to pick him out.

“I told you I didn’t do it on purpose,” Luke said as he lowered the turret onto the tank.

“I know, I believe you.”

“Thought he was a deer.”

“I know. I’m here to talk to you, see how you’re doing. Your mum’s worried.”

Luke looked up from his work. Pete couldn’t figure out if the boy’s eyes were red from lack of sleep, crying, or the fumes from the glue. “I don’t care about her,” said Luke.

“Fine,” said Pete, knowing—or hoping —the kid didn’t mean it. “What about Ian? His brother’s gone. He could probably use a friend around now.”

Something cracked in Luke’s hand. He swore and threw the turret at the window. It bounced away onto the floor. 

Pete sighed, thinking that maybe this was a bad idea. Best to let him be. He stood up and picked the tank turret up from the floor. As he crouched, he saw another framed picture in the trash bin. 

Ian and Luke stood at a creek dangling fish up for the camera. By the look of their faces, the photo was taken maybe four or five years ago. They beamed, big toothed and bright the way only ten-year-olds can. Garrett McCoy stood between them with his big arms draped over their shoulders. He’d been a handsome young man, barely twenty-five. The kind of guy two young boys would look up to.

“Garret was like a brother to you too, wasn’t he?” Pete set the broken turret back on the desk.

Luke spun in his chair and faced Pete. “No. He wasn’t.”

Pete let Luke be and headed back downstairs. He returned to the kitchen to pick up the rifle. As he opened his mouth to say goodbye, he froze in the doorway. 

Ian sat on Marta’s lap, his face buried in her chest. Both were weeping.

“I miss him too,” Marta said. 

She had held Pete like that once. The night they heard about Barry. Something in Pete’s gut stung. The same feeling as getting insulted when you’re too far in the drink. Like getting mad and knowing you’re taking it the wrong way.

Still, he couldn’t shake it. She’d cried like that for Barry. Didn’t seem right to give the same emotion to Garrett McCoy.

#

Pete got back in his cruiser and took one last look at the house, realizing he’d forgotten the rifle. He was thinking about going back for it when he caught Luke staring down at him from the top floor window. The boy didn’t return Pete’s wave and so he thought better of going back inside.

That was that. He pulled out of the front yard, the cruiser bobbing over the uneven gravel. 

“I don’t know if I’m going to make it back,” Barry had said the last time Pete managed to speak withhim.

“Don’t say that.”

“It’s true. We just… things are getting worse.”

“You can handle it.”

The phone signal buzzed through their pause.

“You look after Marta and Luke. If it happens.”

“It won’t come to that.” Pete hadn’t wanted to legitimize Barry’s mood, but he’d figured it was what his friend needed to hear. “You know I’ll take care of them,” he’d said. Barry sighed.

“Thanks.” The last word Barry spoke to him flew up from Kandahar and bounced back down. Pete had heard the smile in it even through the satellite phone. 

#

Pete wrote tickets and handled noise complaints through spring and summer; giving warnings to teenagers partying on the lake, putting Bradley Wilkes into the tank one evening after he’d thrown a pint glass at the bar. 

He didn’t go back to the house. When he saw Marta around town, in the supermarket or on the street, he’d nod and pull a smile over his face, but she returned his politeness less and less. Eventually he started ducking her.

He wrote letters but never sent them. One night he stayed up until four writing one for Luke to open on his eighteenth birthday. He threw in stories about Barry and himself, what they got up to as kids. The kind of bullshit they pulled on neighbors and the time they smashed the windows of their school rivals in the next town over. How he and Ian reminded him of Pete and his father. Things happen, he wrote. The letter wound up in the trash the next morning.

He was going off duty when his phone rang. He fished it out of his pocket and saw Marta’s name flashing on the screen.

Her voice was panicked and she was sobbing. Pete tried to calm her down, putting his work voice on. She screamed and he headed to his car, keeping the phone on speaker.

Pete roared down to the house and saw Luke and Ian going at it on the yard. The car was barely stopped as he ran out. Ian’s face was bloody and red. His fist went fast into Luke’s nose. It cracked hard and Luke took his friend down, breathing through his teeth and spraying blood.

Marta shouted from the porch.

Pete grabbed Luke by his shirt and tore him away. Ian lunged but Pete managed to hold him back.

“He knew Garret fished at the creek in the morning!” Ian’s voice was like shattered glass. “He could’ve gone anywhere else but he went there!”

“You’re lying, you’re a liar just like he was!”

They lunged again, thrashing at Pete’s arms as he held them apart. Nails tore into his skin.

“Stop it!” Pete shouted. “Cut it out, now!” He yanked Ian away toward the car like a dog. Luke paced behind them.

“Never come back here,” Luke said. Marta ran down from the porch and wrapped her arms around her son, struggling to keep him in place. Ian began to shudder and Pete loosened his grip on the boy. He turned back to Marta.

“I’ll take him home,” he said to her. She bit her lip and kissed Luke’s neck. 

#

He let Ian ride up front on the way back to town. The boy breathed heavy, fighting to keep himself composed.

“Here,” Pete said, offering him a tissue. Ian wiped clumsily at the blood drying under his nose. “You two shouldn’t fight like that,” Pete said, trying to kill the silence. “But I know good friends can get into it sometimes.” He smiled. “Hell, me and Luke’s dad used to get into all kinds of—”

“Please, shut up,” said Ian.

“Sorry.” They didn’t speak again for several minutes. The sound of tires and the gravel road filled the car with white noise. It made Pete nervous. “I’m just saying,” he said. “You both lost somebody close. You two should be helping each other, not throwing fists.”

“He just couldn’t stand it,” Ian said through a sniffle. “He thinks he got the short end, his dad dying and all. But Barry went to Afghanistan on his own account. Garrett never did nothing…” His eyes twisted close.

“Alright, let’s not talk anymore,” said Pete. He put his hand on the kid’s shoulder. In a few moments, Ian stopped shaking.

Garret’s truck still sat in the driveway when Pete pulled up the McCoy house. A for-sale sign hung in the rear windshield.

“That true what you said?” Pete asked as Ian cracked the door open. “About Luke knowing Garret would be there in the morning?”

“Doesn’t matter,” said Ian.

Pete watched the kid amble up his porch and through the front door. As he drove off, Pete thought about that picture in Luke’s trash and the fish dangling loosely in their hands.

#

Pete was on his way home but went out to the bar instead. Jenny welcomed him and had a 50 on the counter by the time he sat down. Pete thanked her and took a sip, looking out at the nick knacks on the wall; an old dart board with a crack in it, a map of the county turned yellow by cigarette smoke from back in the day. His eyes stopped on a photo taped to the mirror. Garret McCoy looked back at him, face glowing and arms around a group of friends sitting at the bar.

“Sad thing,” said Jenny.

“You bet.”

Karen O’Neill sat three stools down from Pete and gave him a nod. She had a look on her face like she had something to say. Pete waved her over. 

Karen was Marta and Luke’s neighbor. The dragon tattoo on her neck slithered as she stretched her way onto the stool beside Pete.

“How you doing?” Pete asked.

Karen shrugged. “Kid got suspended again. Dropped him at my mums to get a breather. How about you?”

“Went down to Marta’s,” said Pete. “Had to stop Luke Coley and Ian McCoy from killing each other.

“Shit,” said Karen. “Those poor kids.”

“Don’t I know it.”

“You ask me,” Karen said as if Pete did, “neither of them had much chance. That Marta, she should be ashamed of herself.” 

Pete set his beer down. “What’s that?”

“I ought to keep out of it,” said Karen. “But…”

“But you won’t,” he said, faking a smile. Karen had been that way since they were young. Karen shrugged.

“That one there,” she said, pointing to Garret’s picture. “I don’t much blame him. Young guys, you know how they are. Can’t resist it. When McCoy started pulling his truck up to her house late—and I mean real late—I thought ‘well, here’s a right tool, eh?’ Then when I seen Marta all tarted up, heading down the front steps to Garrett’s truck like James friggin’ Bond, I knew it was really her fault. She’s not that much younger than you and me. Like I said, should know better.”

Pete blinked. “Jesus, Karen.”

Karen tipped her beer to her lips, it bubbled as she nodded. Pete wondered how long ago she’d dropped her kid off. “I’m sorry, Petey. I know you and Barry was real close. You just… you should know.”

“How many times?”

Karen laughed. “Hell, more than a few. Maybe a year’s worth, I think.”

Pete paid for his beer and left Karen alone at the bar. He was meaning to walk home but when he got there he didn’t stop. He kept on down the road, stopping once at a gas station out of town to buy a pack of Viceroys and a lighter. 

He choked down two smokes and then threw the pack in a bush. Pete never admitted to himself he was heading to Marta’s, but wound up there all the same. It was well after dark and the air smelled like the wet piles of leaves collecting near the woods. October was almost through, only the second one since Barry’s death. If Garrett was shot in spring and him and Marta had been at it for almost a year by then, that meant Barry had still been alive when they’d started. 

Pete stood at the mouth of the driveway looking up at the house. He imagined Garrett’s truck rumbling up through here, sneaking as quiet as a pick-up could. Then he thought of Marta coming down the porch steps, smiling in an old dress so unworn it ought it be called new again.

Pete looked up from the porch to the top window. The light was on and Luke was staring down at him.

 


CONOR DIVIESTI writes and lives in Toronto, Ontario.

Copyright © 2018 by Conor DiViesti. All rights reserved.

‘Mud’ by Joe Bongiorno

Mud

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

Kilometers from Kandahar’s sewage scent and mortar symphony, Private Joseph Lespérance of the Canadian Infantry was letting himself sink in the crater of mud, slowly, without resistance, as the rain continued to pour. His ears buzzed—sound was returning to him. He could hear Allah’s name echoing from the distant village mosque where followers cleansed their feet of toe jam and sin, and the heavy breathing of someone an arm’s length away from his body. His intuition told him that only he and Blume had survived.  Lespérance opened his eyes, unsure of whether he wanted to prove himself right or wrong; through his blurred vision, he made out Blume’s pale face.

The pressure cooker bombs had exploded one by one in coordinated waves of shrapnel and fire, tearing the earth open like a mouth. Privates Farrow and Skalski lay in bits strewn across the crater. Moments before the explosions, the patrol unit of four had reached checkpoint Aashiq to secure the deserted farmlands south of the mountain village. Insurgents had operated out of the deserted farmhouses before being snuffed, but there was always the risk of it being recaptured. The patrol took their positions. Lespérance was on lookout duty, his boots inches deep in sticky mud. Rain dribbled down his binocular lenses while he scanned the hills, trying to distinguish plotters from passersby. But his mind was drifting. The sky was pouring for the ninth consecutive day, transforming the dust and dirt roads of the Helmand province into rivers of sludge. It was consuming the land and everything in it. 

“Joseph?” Blume mumbled, letting go of his Colt C7 rifle. He attempted to remove his boots from his feet, but his legs were stuck in the mud as deep as roots.

Lespérance tasted the coppery sweetness of blood. Lying on his side, he touched the pear-shaped wound in his abdomen and closed his eyes. 

“Joseph, are you there? I can’t see.” 

Lespérance opened his lips to speak, but he had nothing to say. He had played out his confrontation with Blume in his mind until he had grown sick of it. He tried to tune Blume out, listening to the drip-drop of rain and crackling of dying flames. Smoke was all around them like curtains, making the world opaque while the mud drew them closer together in descent.

“You there, Joseph?” Blume said louder, wiping the mud from his eyes. “

“Guess you can say that,” replied Lespérance.

“You hurt? I can’t see a fucking thing. Not a thing.”

“What’s it to you?” Lespérance mumbled. The mud had reached his elbows, pulling his waist in. 

“What kind of question is that?” Blume cried. “I think we’re sinking!” Blume was feeling out the crater for something solid to hold onto. “For fuck’s sake, pull me out. I can’t move my legs!”

Lespérance spit to the side and opened his eyes to watch the smoke climb skyward. “It’s about time I get a change of scenery,” he said, closing his eyes again. “You know, away from here. Away from you.”

Outside the crater, men shouted in Pashto. The tones of their voices rose, celebrating or lamenting either victory or tragedy.

 “I can’t see” moaned Blume. He rubbed his eyes. The same eyes that had caught Lespérance’s wink in the barracks two years ago and accepted an invitation after a moment’s hesitation. He spread out his arms, trying to propel himself forward in a blind swim, but it took hold of his right hand. He swore, swaying back and forth before plunging in the free fist in frustration, burying himself deeper with each movement. “You told yourself things,” Blume continued. “Convinced yourself of things that you didn’t really believe. You did that!”

Lespérance leaned his head back and exhaling. His limbs were no longer visible—they had been absorbed into the ground. 

“I’ve got it all worked out.” Blume said. “I’m gonna sell the condo for a bigger place.  Maybe I’ll move to the country.” 

“You hate the country,” Lespérance replied. 

“…up in the mountains, view of water and woods.” 

“You’re afraid of heights.” 

“…away from city smog. Fresh mountain air. Wildflowers.” 

“You have allergies….” 

“…gonna built a house from scratch. And start a family. 

“You hate kids.”

“I’ve got—” Blume searched for the right words to defend himself. 

“No one.” Lespérance finished the sentence. 

Silence ensued as the mud drew their sinking, breaking bodies closer, faces only inches apart. Lespérance remembered a day nine months ago, when he had woken up at three o’clock in the morning. He had climbed down from his bunk and gone to meet Blume by the latrine like they’d arranged, but Blume never turned up.  By four o’clock, Lespérance had dragged himself back to the tent and had climbed back into his bunk, feeling dumb and rejected. That’s when I should’ve figured it out, thought Lespérance, as he sunk deeper into the tar-thick mud. 

“Is it a boy or girl?” Lespérance asked. Blume had broken that news after nine months of distance. Blume’s wife was pregnant, and she due to deliver next month. His tour was coming to an end. He sent his request for an honorary discharge and packed his belongings in advance. “Were you ever going to—”

“I’m leaving this shithole!” Blume interrupted. 

No words were spoken between them in the company of others, though the only audience they had now were the charred remains of Skalski and Farrow deep in the mouth of the crater. They had always stuck to a script of public silence during their tours, returning home to disparate lives for weeks at a time, one in Ontario, and the other, in Quebec. Either by fate or coincidence, they always ended up in the same regiments, performing their duties without raising any eyebrows and seizing moments alone to plan future encounters in barracks washroom stalls. 

“Were you ever going to tell me that you got married?” asked Lespérance.

“You knew I was engaged,” said Blume, lowering his voice as though concerned the dead would hear. “Why does it matter?”

“You weren’t supposed to go through with it!”

“You don’t decide that for me!” yelled Blume. “You’re not in the picture! It was convenient. That’s all,” he added breathing hard, looking half-relieved. 

Their faces drew even closer, lips only inches apart in the mud. Lespérance had seen enough of Afghanistan. Enough of Blume. The opaque world was quickly boring him.

Seconds before the pressure cooker bombs went off, Lespérance had been watching for enemy movement in the trees. He’d lost himself in the barbed wired opium fields, in the swaying weeds, in the willow trees, in the fabric of distant mud hut doors of recycled oil drums and tin. Birds had been squawking ominously, but he’d said nothing. Silhouettes of suspicious bodies had lingered in the tall weeds, but again, he’d said nothing. Lespérance had zoomed in with his binoculars, seeing the Afghan escort arrive out of position: three men without uniform by a machine gun mounted Chevy. He’d zoomed in as the driver held up his cellular phone, waiting to press the detonation key. It had even seemed like the driver was staring back at him. Lespérance had read all the signs and had still said nothing.

Outside the crater, men had been shouting over an orchestra of gunfire. Getting closer and closer. A matter of moments, minutes, seconds. 

“Do you have a picture of her in your breast pocket?” Lespérance’s face was slipping under. He spat, lifting his lips above the surface to finish his sentence, “Or do you have a picture of me?” His lips sank in. 

Blume replied inaudibly. He coughed, choked, and finally gave in, as the mud forced itself into his mouth, nostrils and ears. 

Lespérance wanted to have the last word, but he couldn’t. He was nose-deep in. He closed his eyes, and then the mud sealed them shut.

 


JOE BONGIORNOis a writer of fiction and non-fiction and works as a high school teacher in his native Montreal. His writing has appeared in Geist, Broken Pencil,Carte Blanche, Existere, and The Headlight Anthology. He is currently working on a novel.

Copyright © 2018 by Joe Bongiorno. All rights reserved.

‘Bedside Knife’ by Nils Blondon

Bedside Knife

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

After ten months of writing it was done. My first novella. I read through it twice, and thought it was pretty good. Strong enough to be published, but I could never be sure. What mattered most was my friend’s opinion. He was an author. There was an unspoken recognition between us. A gentle camaraderie fostered by a shared struggle: the artist’s impassioned toil.

He said that when I finished the first draft he would read it, and give me his thoughts. I told him that I wanted the truth: “Don’t spare my feelings,” I said. He promised that he wouldn’t. His opinion was the only one that mattered to me. I gave the draft a final read and emailed him a copy.

Ten days passed. I took a break from writing, and I even made the time to have dinner with a girl I had started seeing. I told her I had finished the first draft of my novella. She asked if she could read it.

“No,” I said. I was only letting one person read it, my novelist friend.

“Why not get a second opinion?” she asked. “What makes his thoughts the only ones that matter?”

“He understands,” I replied. “He knows what it takes to really make it, to get published.”

She shrugged. We ate our pasta in silence, dispirited and unsure of each other.

I got home that night and checked my email. No response from my friend yet. I opened up the draft on my computer, read the first few lines, and had to stop.  Reading my own words was like hearing the sound of my own voice. But what really mattered, all that really mattered, was what my friend would think of it. From his thoughts I would get an idea of how close I was to breaking through as a writer.

A few days later, I woke up at 6 am to give him a call. He didn’t answer. Everything in my room looked overexposed, a few measures too bright. I called in sick to work, and checked my email every fifteen minutes, hoping his notes on my draft would appear in my inbox. Any second now. Nothing came. But it will. He will get back to me. Soon.

I kept a knife on my bedside table. It was a gift from someone I hadn’t seen in years. I picked it up, and felt its weight in my hands. It had a real presence. I wiped the dust from the blade, and put it back down

What if the writing is terrible? Maybe that’s why he’s not getting back to me. He’s embarrassed. He’s hiding from me because of the manuscript. My pathetic manuscript.

That idea stalked me through the night. It was still in my head when I woke up the next morning. And then the phone rang. It was him.

“Hey man.” He sounded nonchalant. “How’s it going?”

“Great,” I said. “Just taking it easy, feels weird not having the novella to work on. It became a part of my routine, a real part of me.”  

“Oh yeah?” He told me to hold on for a second. I heard him chat and laugh with a female voice in the background. “Why don’t we meet today at the Coffee Hour? How’s four o’clock?”

“That works.” I hung up the phone. I tidied the trash and clothes from around my apartment, ran the shower until my bathroom was thick with steam and bathed for the first time since finishing my novella. The water washed over my soapy skin as I brushed my teeth –– all the tedium and irritations of daily hygiene.

 

The streetcar was crowded as I made my way to the Coffee Hour. I arrived at 3:30 pm to prepare for the bad news. I was ready to be told that my work was awful, that it needed to be rewritten. It was OK. That’s what the process was all about: building and destroying, killing and resurrecting.

He showed up twenty minutes late –– he had nothing to prove. He was an accomplished writer, after all. We sat down together and ordered black coffees. He started talking about a girl he met online, about her body and her face and the way she spoke. “She speaks like a baby, dude. She has a baby voice.”

I listened. I waited for a chance to ask him what he thought of my novella, but he kept talking about the girl. I felt something twist in my guts, a raw resentment. I watched his mouth move, anticipating the moment when he’d say: “I read your manuscript.” But it never came.

He finished his coffee and left. I stayed in the cafe alone. My phone buzzed in my pocket, and it was a text from him: “Sorry man,” it said. “I forgot. I wanted to tell you that I really hope things work out with you and that girl. I really do. Love you, bro.”

I sat thinking about all the things I could have asked him. I was angry at myself for not having the guts to bring up the novella. Couples in the café ate full bowls of fresh fruit and yogurt.  I watched feeling at odds with anything kind, anything neutral and easy.

I got home, and checked my email again. I was sure that he had sent me another apologetic message, this time about his failure to bring my novella up over coffee. This must be a trick of his –– an April fool’s joke delivered in the wrong month. But my inbox remained empty.

Another two days passed. He still hadn’t got back to me. I really needed some form of validation now, a bit of dopamine, a bit of serotonin for my brain. I called the girl.

“I’ll send you my novella if you still want to read it,” I told her. She told me to send it to her. She got back to me that evening.

“I read your novella. It was good!”

“Good?” I asked. “What do you mean by good?”

“I mean, it was pretty good. I mean, I think I liked it.”

Someone laughed outside my window. I heard a streetcar grind along the tracks.

“You ‘liked it’? That doesn’t tell me anything,” I replied. “That’s like something my mom would say. Be honest! Tell me what you actually think.”

“What?”

The laughter outside got louder. Shut up, I wanted to yell.

“Are you ok?” She asked. “Something has been really off with you lately. You’re acting kind of weird.”

“Weird? I’m not fucking weird. I’m pissed off. Tired of the bullshit. Just tell me what you think. I don’t have time to hear a coward’s critique.”

“God, what’s wrong with you? It’s good, OK? It’s not bad. I kind of liked it”

“Oh, so you kind of like it now? We’re getting closer to what you really think of my work. I know what you think, but you’re a coward just like him. You’re too scared to come out and say that you hate it. You think I’m pathetic, you think my writing is pathetic!”

She hung up, and then texted me: “Never call me again.”

The laughter outside was intolerable. I ran to the ledge, and looked down and out onto the street, but I couldn’t find its source.

I closed the windows, drew the blinds, ran the kitchen sink cold, and stuck my head under the tap to cool off a bit. Then I printed out a copy of my manuscript and read it in fragments, but never start to finish, scanning a paragraph here, a sentence there, the last page and then another page in the middle. My stomach hurt, so I skipped dinner that night and breakfast the next morning. I read my manuscript again, only this time I pulled my friend’s novel from the shelf and juxtaposed our pages in contrast, comparing our work line by line, word by word, and I felt sick again. “Fuck this, I shouted. “Fuck all of this!”

I grabbed the bedside knife, and stabbed the wall ten or twelve times, compelled by something ancient, a timeless blue anger. It felt good to stab the wall. It felt right.

I placed the knife in my pocket, blade out. I left my building, and walked towards my friend’s house. Only to talk to him, of course. Only to ask him, face -to- face, what he thought of my novella.

 


NILS BLONDON is a writer from Toronto, Ontario. His work explores his experiences with the human condition at its most raw, addiction, alcoholism, and loss.

Copyright © 2018 by Nils Blondon. All rights reserved.

 

‘Walking Long’ by Mark Mayes

Walking Long

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

see how they look at each other when they think I am not watching. My son and his new wife are growing harder with wanting. They study shiny catalogues for this or that. Wasteful things. A thousand varieties of nonsense. She expects a child and my small room would be suitable for the newborn. We had an arrangement. They would care for me in old age, and when the time came the house would be theirs. It is not much. Not enough for them, I am sure. They long for one of those monster cities on the coast, an apartment with a dishwasher and other gadgets. I saw a story about it. Tiny rooms high above the street, all shiny surfaces, so clean and smooth it makes you sad and lazy.

This village by Shenmi forest is no longer for them. The chickens running about, pigs snorting among the scraps, the few barefoot children, growing fewer each year. Traditions growing weaker with every season. Soon we will all be ghosts that no one can be bothered to honour.

With only three teeth I cannot eat the food my husband’s wife, Lan, offers me. It gives me no pleasure, and I can easily choke. I ask her to mash it up for me. Small pieces. But she slams the bowl down, defiant, hands on her hips. I cannot eat meat in the same way. Rice and soft noodles I can manage. And soup, of course. She is not a good cook. Not like my wife was. This one adds spices with no care for how they clash. It all goes in.

I can still defend myself a little. I have my father’s cane. But I foresee a time when she or both of them might strike me, without fear or shame, for their own amusement. Such things occur. They did when I was young, but there was a community back then to censure it, root it out. Closed doors could be opened. I have heard them whispering when they imagine me asleep. They long for my death. But death comes in its own time. We were always taught that. We were taught to honour and respect our elders. Much of that is gone now. 

I heard her talking about leaving me on the high road, where the trucks thunder by, trucks crammed with cheap plastic rubbish, and that if I am not run down, the authorities would take me in somewhere, to some facility, a warehouse for the unwanted. No. I would tell them where my home is. I still know where I live. Once you forget that, they can put you anywhere. I would make the authorities bring me back, and then my son and his wife would be shamed. There is still some law. Is there not?

The old ones are dying out. There’s still Liu, half-crazy with homebrew, and the widow Hua, and the Zhang couple—they never officially married, but she took his name. The village itself is dying. No one cares for their properties any more, and the paths are overgrown. A few of the unemployed young men might even be using drugs. I saw Ho looking ill. I asked him what the matter was, and he looked at me so fiercely. I still wanted to comfort him; he used to be a kind boy. In some ways I cannot blame them, the boys that this country prevents from becoming men. They too have found themselves unwanted and dishonoured. There are no local jobs to support this community. The young must go to the cities. Many do that and some never return or even write. They are swallowed up as by a great snake. My son was lucky to become a tax official for this and several other villages in the area. He had an aptitude. They even gave him a motorcycle. This does not make him popular with some, so his luck is tainted.

I must not wait until I lie in my own mess with no one to clean me or comfort me, until they let me suffer whole days without water or food. I do not wish to die insane or in a rage. The indignities possible are not to be taken lightly. My son is not my son. He is strange to me, rude. I always longed for a daughter, despite what most people think. My son, Chi, has shallow eyes. They flicker about, they will not hold my gaze. It was the same when he was a boy, he always seemed to be secretly plotting.

I worked my smallholding until age prevented me. The big operations swallowed me up. I can still cultivate a few vegetables. The cabbages were especially good this year, but she overcooks them. The soil, you see. It has been taken care of, at least our garden patch. It has not been leached. You cannot take and take and never give anything back. This is a deeper law. The land was sold for a pittance, the few animals slaughtered. My sister, Jiahui, lives over that mountain, beyond Shenmi forest. I have not heard from her in twelve years. Perhaps she has moved away or even passed on. Surely they would have let me know.

We used to play by the well near that tallow tree over there, the one hit by lightning near its base. The well is now dry. Once, my sister dropped a kitten into the well. I was shocked, but she made me promise to tell no one, she twisted my wrist. I think the kitten crawled out of the water and found a ledge, for I heard its cry from the darkness. My sister was two years older, you see, and our father’s favourite. I still hear the sound of a kitten crying some nights when I cannot sleep. That trick of hers has haunted me for over seventy years.

They say there is a great shortage of girls for our boys to marry, due to the Policy. Many men will never find a partner. So much for the Policy. You can say my son was a lucky one. You might say that. He advertised in some newspaper, and so she came here, from a mining town, East. A different sort, she is. No humility, harsh manners, little grace, except that which is done for show, like when the nurse came to look at my foot in the spring. I was never introduced to her family. I heard they were deeply disappointed with her choice. For my part, I say that like attracts like.

I never feared age. I was foolish enough to imagine wisdom would accrue, and thereby honour would be given, modest as my life was. The honour that only family can bestow. Honour: longer lasting than love and more reliable.

I have made a decision. Tomorrow morning I will walk out through the gate. I will enter the great Shenmi forest that bounds three sides of this village, and I will walk deep into the forest’s heart.

***

Fa woke very early the next morning, barely after dawn. His son and daughter-in-law could be heard lightly snoring as he shuffled quietly past their door. Bad weather had been predicted by the radio the night before, but when Fa stepped outside he found the day to be bright and crispwith no trace of wind. The sky was like pale blue milk. Above the line of trees the far-off mountains were adorned in mist. “Beautiful,” he said.

He had not prepared any food, nor had he taken any water. That would defeat the purpose. He would walk and walk and sit down to rest when the correct time came and the right place was found. By the gate he paused, thinking: ‘Am I really doing the right thing? Am I mistaken in their intentions?’ Then he remembered all the secret looks they gave each other when they thought he was not looking. His sight was not as good as it had been, but he was far from blind. His hand rubbed the smooth wood of the gate, a gate he made himself some forty years before. I was not a bad carpenter, he thought.

He passed by the silent houses. From the forest the birds were already calling. They blended into an odd music that obeyed its own laws of time and rhythm. There was woodsmoke in the air. Fa inhaled. Then he saw a thin line of smoke above the chimney of Hua’s house. She too was an early riser then. Fa had once considered asking Hua to move in with him. That was some years after both their respective partners had died. A decent enough period of time. They might have married, or simply acted as good companions. The boy, still at the village school then, would not hear of it. He played up, threatened to run away, told his father he was betraying the memory of his mother. He would slam doors off their hinges, would even break plates. Fa gave in. Now he bitterly regretted it.

Unsurprisingly, Hua had been very graceful over the matter. She was a person of character. They had discussed the preliminaries after all, over many a bowl of tea, usually in her warm kitchen. She was a good woman. She told Fa that she could not come between him and his son, a son of whom so much was once expected.

Why not knock gently at her door? Explain the situation. The correct words might be found. She might also appreciate the company, and he could still manage most things. He was not looking for a nurse. Was he? They had barely spoken since the idea had cooled. Nothing needed to be said; he felt she had understood. But now things had advanced, and not only their years. They had to stick together, did they not? He had something to offer still. Everyone always has something to offer. You must believe that.

Her face was round, pleasant. She kept the light of her girlhood in her eyes. Conversation can be likelove. And there is satisfaction in knowing someone will call your name in the morning. And when you call theirs there will be an answer. This is compensation.

Fa stood, trembling a little, at the foot of her path. He had not even left the village and his plan had been vanquished. Perhaps he really was a foolish old man, fit only for wherever foolish old men are sent by their well-meaning children. A hazy place of grey corridors, barked commands, indifference, a mad kind of loneliness, and the worst kind of food. Such did he imagine it.

Faint cooking smells came from Hua’s house. Why not invite yourself to breakfast? Perhaps she is yearning, too? Just then, the door opened violently, Fa felt it to be, and a man he had never seen before threw out a jug of dirty-looking water onto the ground. It steamed where it fell.

The man looked at Fa. “What?” he said in a rough voice. The man was perhaps in his fifties, hefty forearms, a blunt face.

“I was wondering how Hua is,” Fa began.

“She is in the hospital.”

“Which hospital? What is wrong?”

“Why do you need to know?” the man responded, narrowing his eyes.

“I am a neighbour. A friend, actually.”

“Never seen you before,” the man said, then turned and shut the door behind him. The steam from the water still rose from the ground where it had been thrown.

Fa took a few steps back. Looked at the house. Through one window, behind a thin curtain, he could see that furniture and boxes had been stacked against one wall.

It was time to go. A dalliance, that was all. An idea long past its freshness. Some once-living thing, dried and unrecognisable. A lost path. Fa hoped that whatever Hua was suffering from it would be swift to release her. Again, a bitterness swelled in him: his son, that complacent runt who did not know one end of a spade from the other. “How did his mother and I create him? Or was he created by something else, by history, or by some distant edict from the men in dark suits? Their version of progress. Always leaping forward they are, and never looking back to where they have leapt from. Deranged frogs. It might all be possible, and possible, too, that I am losing my faculties.”

Fa walked on. He came to the end of the row of small dwellings. The Shenmi forest beckoned. This particular path ended where the trees began. Pines, some oaks, a few varieties he had never learned the names of, or perhaps he had forgotten them—it all began here, giving no sense of its size, its grandeur, seeming almost parochial, a trickster, claiming nothing. The ground began to crunch beneath Fa’s feet. He had, of course, walked many times into the outskirts, looking for mushrooms, herbs, or just to gather his thoughts when times were difficult. As a boy, he searched out birds’ eggs, sometimes climbing high to rob their nests. He saw in his mind a thumb and fingers pressing against a bright blue egg, and the shell giving way, then the yolk and the albumen dripping down the fingers into the bowl of a palm.

This time it was different. This time there was only one direction. Going on was a controlled falling. With a somewhat blank look on his face, Fa slowly fell.

***

I had walked much of the day, deeper and deeper. The light was changing now. It had become as though I were walking through the same patch of forest, over and over. I noticed curious repetitions of shape and colour and spacing. The same grouping of fungi around a fallen bough. Perhaps they were not exact replicas, merely half-echoes. I began to wonder whether I was actually walking on the spot, upon some earthen treadmill. My hat had fallen from my hand some miles back. What use is a hat?

The thirst had come, had then lessened, only to return with a fierceness that frightened me. My limbs ached. Despite the lateness of the season, insects had enjoyed a feast on my exposed skin.

They say the fern is a prehistoric plant. One of the oldest and once one of the most common, it grew almost everywhere. It seems then that I am walking into prehistory.

Will my son and his wife contact the authorities? Or will they assume I have disappeared and hope for that disappearance to be permanent? Another statistic, another deranged old man losing himself among the trees, not even worthy of a photograph in the province newspapers. Perhaps they are giving it a little time to reach the point of no return. It is their lucky day.

I remember when I first saw him. It is difficult to admit, but I had a natural disgust. I wanted to retch. I pretended I was yawning through lack of sleep.  It was a difficult labour, and I sat by her, even though this was most unusual. His mother doted on him, as it is expected. I suspected, especially as he grew and revealed his nature, that he would extract some revenge for being born in this place and time to such simple people. His spirit is greedy and complex.

At last, I recognised the spot, put there as though it were just for me. The impressively large ginkgo tree. I looked up and could not see its crown. It was lost in the weave of other trees. In a triangular patch of purple sky I believe I saw a bright star. Either that or a satellite. Then a wind altered the canopy and the star was hidden.

I could smell a decaying animal nearby. At first the smell is bad, but with time it turns to a sweetness, then to a type of musk, then, gradually, to the remembrance of a scent. Animals will scent me. I suppose I may be torn and scattered. I do not begrudge the forest the gift of my body.

I sat cross-legged beneath the ginkgo tree. One thing I have not lost is flexibility. Early morning exercises, as we learned in school. I never missed a day. Well, except the day she died. On that day I did not move or speak. Some thought me hard-hearted because I did not weep. It was beyond weeping.

The leaves beneath me were a soft cushion. The trunk supported me well, consoled me, in truth. I closed my eyes. I counted my breaths. I asked for release.

***

When I opened my eyes the forest was there. I heard its sounds and smelt it. I tasted it. It tasted green and a little bitter. I felt neither thirst nor hunger. Indeed, I felt astonishingly rested and calm in myself. If I had to sum it up, I would say a few years had been lifted from my shoulders. Perhaps more than a few.

I got to my feet with ease. My knees and hip had not caused me pain as they usually did. Before leaving, I reached out to touch the ancient ginkgo tree. I blessed it in my heart. The bark was warm with the afternoon sun.

A bird called high in the canopy. It was a message of sorts. It told me to walk again. To return. And so I did.

After what seemed a relatively short time, I came to the village. Still I felt no hunger or thirst. My tread was steady and even. Even my eyesight had grown sharper. Some children passed me. A dog scampered around them. The children ignored me, as they often do these days. After all, what do the old know of the modern world? But the dog sniffed the air when it drew close. I thought of touching it, scratching it behind the ears, as it was not a fearsome dog. It whined as I put my hand out. It backed away. Then the children called it, and it followed them.

Eventually, I found Hua’s house. Smoke still curled from the chimney. I could see someone moving inside. Then the sound of a stringed instrument, badly played. 

“Are you there, Hua?” I called this from the gate, expecting no reply. But I did notice that my voice had regained some of its youthful timbre. My walk had done me good. The door opened and the man from before stood in the doorway in his vest. In one hand he held a mug of spirits. I knew this because I could smell it, even from the gate. The man looked about him, a puzzled expression on his sallow unshaven face. 

“Has Hua returned from the hospital? Is she well? I have something to ask her. Is she well?”

The man slowly shook his head, but this did not seem in answer to my question. It was, I am sure, more a response to his own thoughts. He took a gulp from his mug, shuddered, and closed the door.

At last I came to my own house. I stepped over the low wall instead of passing through the gate. Do not ask me why. It simply felt a better thing to do. I strode, light-footed, to the door and entered. Inside it was dark. I backed out of the door and noticed that all the curtains were drawn. That had not seemed apparent at first, or else I had not cared to look.

I found them in the kitchen, at the table. My son and his wife. She no longer appeared pregnant. An unfinished meal lay before each of them. When I stood at the threshold they did not look up. When I stood by the still warm oven, they did not acknowledge me. My son’s face was bloated and tear-stained. Just then, he pushed away his plate and his head fell to the table with a thud. Sobs racked his body. I had never seen such a thing from him. His wife looked on, seemingly unsure of how to comfort him. She, too, was pale and drawn, as though she had not slept for several nights. I looked at them both and, still as they were, and they became a painting, like one of those rural interiors by Li from the 30s. They went out of fashion, but I always appreciated them.

My son raised his head and wiped his eyes with his sleeve. He breathed deeply, then said: “I failed him. I failed myself.”

She lay her hand on his arm. “It’s not true. Not true,” she cooed, as if she were comforting a young child.

By then I had swallowed enough of the joke. I clapped my hands together. “Cheer up,” I told them. “I am back and better than ever. Lots to do in that garden, a few roof tiles to replace, a new coat of paint for the gate and this dreary old kitchen. It is time we spruce the place up.”

They acted as though they had not heard me. Not so much as a glance. So the rudeness, the arrogance, had remained in them. No lessons learned. I clapped my hands again, twice. “Wake up,” I said. “Wake up now.”

My son’s head fell once more to the table, as if a string had been cut. His arms covered his face. He made a sound which could not be distinguished between crying and laughing.

Then, despite the dying light, I scrutinised her face, and although the eyes were moist and puffy, the mouth held the promise of a smile.

 


MARK MAYES currently lives in Wales, where he enjoys writing stories, poems, and songs. 2017 saw the publication of his novel, The Gift Maker. Some of his songs may be found here.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Mayes. All rights reserved.

‘LARRY & JACK’ by Todd MacEwen

Larry and Jack

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

In the summer of 1990, the curators of a new exhibit at the Royal National Theatre in London discovered something odd and unexpected. Steamer trunks and bankers’ boxes by the dozens had been delivered to the theatre from the estate of its most famous patron and performer.  A team of archivists began the task of cataloguing the costumes, scripts, props, notes, and hodge-podge of personal effects. The task of assembling a great man’s life was a solemn one to  them: placing items in context of time and place while creating a celebration of peerless work and acknowledging both the passion and precision he brought to his craft.

Sir Laurence Oliver had died the previous summer. His work and craft, both onstage and behind the scenes, was an inescapable  specter that haunted the Royal National Theatre while he lived, always the standard that others strove to meet. In death, he had become a ghost of the twentieth century:  maintaining respect and reverence through this transition.

In truth, it wasn’t as poetic as that. Arnold Kroken, the librarian at the theatre, had asked Lord Oliver in the early 1980s if he could see fit to donate a handful of items when the time came for posterity’s sake. According to lore, Olivier grabbed the man he had known since the early 1950s by the shoulders, smiled broadly, and said, “Oh hell, I’ll make sure you get all that shit.  The wife will be glad to be done of it and me at the same time.” True to his word, shortly after the time came, Kroken was contacted by Oliver’s barristers concerning a bequest to the theatre’s archives.

There was no master list to make itemizing easier; many of the trunks simply had a year scrawled on a piece of paper and taped to the side. The boxes tended to be labeled by project.  Henry V warranted two boxes, Hamlet four.  Within one of those boxes, which chronicled Olivier’s relationship with the ill-fated Prince of Denmark, the most curious of curios was unearthed.  A Hamlet box, labelled by name and  the numbers 46-47, contained several revisions of the play that would serve as the basis for Oliver’s film in 1948. Each script was rife with handwritten notes and comments as he tried to determine what scenes and characters could be omitted and yet retain its cohesion as it journeyed from stage to screen.

This box in particular contained seven bound copies of the script, the title page of each edition bearing the legend:

THE TRAGEDY OF HAMLET,
THE PRINCE OF DENMARK
BY
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
ADAPTED BY
LAURENCE OLIVER

And written by hand beside the title were numbers one through seven and the initials L.O. Also in this box were four leather bound journals, each one brimming with entries dated over those two years, notes on the play ranging from philosophical and moral questions to stage directions, lighting suggestions, edits and critiques.

Kroken and his team were sidetracked for days in trying to determine the identity of M. Orson, who, over the span of two weeks in the summer of 1946, had earned Olivier’s praise (“a strapping sort with an honest face, perhaps Horatio more than Laertes”) and shortly thereafter his derision (“stage left entrance like a sailor on shore leave, stage right exit like a barge taking on water”).  By the end of the two weeks in question, Olivier pondered giving M. Orson another role (“second gravedigger might work but afraid to put a spade in his hands as he might kill the cast before they can do it later themselves”) before he disappears from Olivier’s journals and presumably a life on the stage.

The oddity was tucked into the back cover of one of the journals which contained entries from July 10th, 1946, to August 4th, and included the entirety of M. Orson’s career treading the boards. It was a program from a baseball game, dated July 24th, 1946, for a game in the city of Montréal between the hometown Royals and the visiting Rochester Red Wings. It was a simple document of eight pages: salmon newsprint stock, similar to what was used at the time by the Montréal Monitor.  Half of those pages were dedicated to the home team, poorly staged action shots side by side with player’s photos that ranged from portrait quality to convicted felon.  There was a page of statistics for the Red Wings and the rest was advertising for everything from Old Virginia pipe tobacco, Pepco motor oil and American Express Travel Services, offering ticketing for air, rail and steamship voyages.

The cover featured the not yet familiar face of the man who would in less than a year break the color barrier in major league baseball, but currently, is finding a look between bemusement and humility.  Jackie Robinson looks as he has always looked, a by-product of starting his baseball career, or at least this stage of it, later in life.  He is older than at least half of his minor league teammates, all dreaming of the day they can join the Dodgers in Brooklyn.  At 27, he is also younger than other teammates who have resigned themselves to minor league careers and those who have washed out. By most accounts, his teammates, young and old, grew to not only accept his position on the team, but gradually realize that his talent in the field, and his personage off it, marked him for success.  For the fans and the city no such progression was needed, it was love at first sight.

On the cover, written in a steady, flowing cursive, the following: “Larry, thanks for your support! Best for the future! Jack Robinson”

By 1946, Olivier had a dream project he wished to pursue, a filmed version of Hamlet that would maintain as much of the beloved original as possible and still succeed on its own merits as film.  The success of Henry V two years prior had given him almost unlimited cache in this area.  In addition to box office and critical acclaim, Olivier had earned Academy Award nominations for both acting and producing, as well as a special award for recognizing his achievement in bringing the play to the screen.  Churchill called it the greatest propaganda film of all time, its release coinciding with the push of the British army into Normandy.  It was revealed some years later that the British government had actually financially supported the production to a largedegree.

Olivier’s primary obstacle in fulfilling this ambition was none other than himself. Although celebrity has always attracted a following, Olivier by this point in his career had something almost entirely new.  Not only renowned for his work in the British theatre, he was now a sought after leading man for Hollywood thanks to movies such as Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, and Pride and Prejudice. And his 1940 marriage to Vivien Leigh did nothing to diminish his stature.  His every public move and endeavor was breathlessly reported by the emerging gossip industry on both coasts of the United States.  Ironically, the British press, never one to avoid sensationalism, accorded Olivier a more deferential treatment.

He and Leigh had been contracted for a run of theatre performances in New Zealand in the fall of 1946 and Olivier had agreed to three contemporary shows, a comedy and two dramas.  He did have six weeks unscheduled during the summer prior to departing to New Zealand which he dedicated to revising the script for Hamlet. He knew that despite the prestige the project would receive, very few backers would support a full, unabridged film that would exceed four hours. Olivier had been working on removing characters, scenes and subplots to whittle the story down to a potential running time of two and a half hours and now had a handful of scripts reflecting those changes. The best process, he decided, to determine which would work best would be to see each script performed on stage by actors under his direction.  As it turned out, he knew the perfect theatre in the perfect city in which he could workshop the play and largely avoid the limelight.

Acting, Olivier had been told as a young man, is a wondrous opportunity to fill one’s passport.  In the winter of 1940, that passport took him to Canada for a few weeks of filming on a movie called 49th Parallel.  Director and screenwriters Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were initially contracted to create a propaganda story of warfare at sea, but instead decided to focus on a project that might sway the United States to enter the conflict by setting a story closer to home, their northern neighbor.  The newly concocted story now had a German U-Boat run ashore in Hudson Bay and the crew deciding to traverse through Canada to reach the U.S. At that time, the U.S. was a neutral party tothe war and therefore an opportunity for the sailors to reach the German embassy and return home.

The director and cast, which included Leslie Howard and Raymond Massey, convened in Montréal a few weeks prior to shooting in order to rehearse.  Many of the roles had not yet been cast, but most of the actors involved were prepared to defer to Olivier had he wished the standard heroic role of the Mountie or Canadian soldier who are on the trail of fugitive sailors.  Olivier, for his part, decided to take the role of Johnny, a French-Canadian trapper who originally encounters the Nazis in the wilds of Manitoba only to meet a tragic end.

Olivier spent some of his time in the city wandering the streets and keeping his ears open to the differences between the French speaking English and the English-speaking French. One evening he and other cast members attended a performance of As You Like It at His Majesty’s Theatre, succeeding in going almost incognito as no one in the crowd that night were likely expecting some of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the day to be sitting together at the back of the theatre.  Following the play, Olivier made his way backstage to meet and congratulate the director and cast, who were understandably taken aback by this unexpected visitor.  The theatre’s general manager, Frederick Dupleses, managed to capture a couple of photographs of Olivier meeting the cast and gave the actor his business card, telling him that if he ever wanted the theatre all he had to do was say the word.

Six years later, Olivier contacted Dupleses to see if the word was still good.  Olivier had explained that he was looking for a cast and crew to work through his variations on Hamlet, that he could see no issue with doing 4 or 5 threadbare public performances during the week for access to everything during the day.  He did make clear that his involvement was that of adapter and that his direction was to determine what worked in the context of presentation and not to plumb to deeper depths of the human soul.  And if possible, he would like his presence and work to be kept a secret and out of any publicity.

Dupleses was initially torn; having Olivier at his theatre, working on Hamlet, was the sort of prestige that rarely occurs in one’s lifetime.  The box office would explode, he thought, particularly with the growing competition for an audience, as many downtown playhouses had transitioned to movie theatres over the past decade.  This could single-handedly revive theatre in the city for a generation. Or it could mean that he would have the means to bring Olivier back in the future for a full commitment, so he decided to continue the  goodwill which evidentially lead to this call in the first place.  Dupleses agreed to Olivier’s requests, telling him that the technical crew was already in place and that he would round up suitable actors for a casting call without informing them of some of the specific conditions they could soon be working under.

Olivier arrived in the city on July 3rd, days after a massive storm broke a week-old heat wave that was deemed typically unseasonable for late June.  Olivier, on the recommendation of Dupleses, took up residence at the Windsor Hotel for the duration of his stay, amused at the providence that he was staying in the same suite that had once welcomed Oscar Wilde.  Although Dupleses had managed to keep a degree of secrecy surrounding Olivier’s work in the city, there was no such courtesy from the Windsor, despite the reassurances of management.  Staff had grown too accustomed to receiving a payout from local press to alert them when someone of note was in residence.  Although his wife hadn’t joined him due to prior commitments in England, she would no doubt have strolled through the lobby on at least one or two occasions. He, however, was there to work, and used his considerable charm and some cash to have the doormen direct him to some of the hotel’s other means of egress.

Casting took place at the theatre with approximately 75 actors brought through over two days.  He was looking for talent, of course, but also those who had experience with the play previously. Technical proficiency was not his highest priority, instead focusing his attention towards those who could take direction and adapt to changes in the script very quickly. He settled on a cast of twenty-eight, promising an opportunity to play multiple roles within rehearsals and performances, explaining his ultimate objective was to stage his adaptive variations to establish which would best achieve his goal.  He did ask that they try to keep knowledge of his involvement to a minimum, but at the end of the process he would certainly allow their participation and his name to be joined together to garner the actors future employment.

A week after he began rehearsals, Oliver meet with Dupleses to thank him for laying the groundwork and to confirm a handful of dates over the next four weeks to accommodate public performances of the work-in-progress. Dupleses furnished Olivier with a list of restaurants and lounges in the city, complete with the names of the  maître d’s and owners who could offer some discretion and privacy should  he feel like dining out or experiencing the city’s legendary nightlife. Surprisingly, Olivier asked about the Montréal Royals, noticing with some interest the coverage they had been garnering in the papers he perused every morning with tea and toast. Enthused by the casual turn in the conversation, Dupleses mentioned that Hector Racine, the owner of the team, was also a notable donor to many of the theatres in the city and, if Olivier liked, he could certainly arrange for Olivier to attend a game while he was in town.

The Montréal Royals began their existence just prior to the turn of the last century as baseball began its slow migration across the border from burgeoning hotspots in New York state and the parts of New England that bordered  Québec. The Royals joined the Eastern League, a development and rookie league that included teams in Toronto (ironically, also named the Maple Leafs), Newark, Buffalo, Baltimore and other medium-sized cities along the east coast.  Despite a largely losing record, the team remained sustainable for two decades before mounting travel and accommodation costs, as well as the loss of innumerable young men to the war effort in Europe in 1917, caused the club to cease operations at the end of that season.

A decade later, a group of businessmen, which included Charles Trudeau, father to the future prime minister, invested in both a resurrection of the club and a new stadium, Delorimier Downs, located in the east end of the city in what is now Ville-Marie.  This version of the Royals enjoyed almost immediate success and support. Within five years, the Royals were affiliated with Major League baseball teams, first  Philadelphia, then Pittsburgh, and ultimately a twenty-one year relationship with the Brooklyn, later Los Angeles, Dodgers.  As the minor league affiliate for the Dodgers, a number of future stars and Hall of Famers came through  Montréal, including Duke Snider, Don Drysdale, Roy Campanella and Tommy LaSorda, but there was one player  in the Royals’ 1946 season who would make baseball history: Jackie Robinson.

Following the U.S. entry in the Second World War, a number of prominent baseball players enlisted in various branches of the armed services, causing baseball to carry on without its biggest stars,  including Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial. Team owners and management filled rosters with the injured and aged, struggling to keep interest sustained in the sport.  Even as the stars began returning to their clubs following their tours of duty, there was one general manager whose search for talent lead him to discover that the Negro Leagues were brimming with untapped potential; he knew that there would be a competitive advantage to incorporate some of these players into the Majors.  Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, found a player of extraordinary caliber to break baseball’s color barrier, Jackie Robinson.

Although he had been born in the deep south, Robinson’s family moved to California shortly after his birth. As a youth, through high school and university, he was an uncommonly gifted athlete, excelling in baseball, basketball, football and track. He was looking at playing semi-pro football before enlisting in the army following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Although the army had been officially desegregated, lingering racism persisted and following an incident where a bus driver told him to go to the back of the vehicle, Robinson refused, only to be later confronted by superior officers who charged him with insubordination which ultimately lead to a court martial. Robinson was ultimately acquitted, but the experience would serve him well just three years later when he crossed baseball’s color line.

Rickey knew he needed not only an outstanding ball player, but also someone with the character to deal with the pressure when he discovered Robinson, now playing the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. Robinson was understandably weary of the offer and, during the interview, charged Rickey that they were purposely looking for someone who was afraid to fight back against the expected torrent of racial epitaphs. Rickey countered that he was looking for someone with the courage to not fight back.  They came to the agreement that Robinson would do so and he was officially signed by the Dodgers in the winter of 1945.

Branch Rickey was blessed to find the player he needed but also by the fact that the Dodger’s minor league team was in  Montréal, a city he felt would be much more accommodating to Robinson given its international and cosmopolitan reputation. Robinson would face enough pressure from players, on his own team and opponents, and didn’t need the additional worry of living in a community that might not be as welcoming.  Many major league teams at the time had minor league affiliates in places like South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, and Rickey thought being away from those atmospheres  would allow Robinson the time to find himself as a ball player.

Although there were a number of racially charged incidents involving Robinson during the team’s spring training in Florida in 1946, by the time the team relocated to Montréal, the city proved to be more than welcoming to Robinson and his wife Rachel. There were some lingering issues with teammates and road trips could be harsh, but Robinson found solace every time the team returned to Montréal’s Delorimier Stadium  and the 20,000 seats full for almost every  game: more than a million people came through the gates during the season to see him.

The Royal’s owners, particularly Racine, were thrilled by this unexpected turn of events. The team had been competitive during its association with the Dodgers and attendance had been steady and impressive, but this was something new.  While the businessman inside him was delighted, as a person, Racine went out of his way to ensure that Robinson and his family felt the full embrace of the city, arranging things from transportation for Rachel, pregnant with the couple’s first child that summer, to  dinners and other evenings on the town.  Racine had seen the city host world leaders and royalty, celebrities and artists, but had seldom seen a more low-key yet all-encompassing welcome as the Robinsons had received.

That summer, the Royals were winning games at a blistering pace and enjoying sold out games regularly at Delorimier Stadium, the crowds cheering loudest every time Robinson made a play in the field: every time he hit the ball, every time he stole a base.  The stadium had added lights in 1935, a luxury for most minor league parks, so most games during the week were played in the evenings, but the weekend matinees left the nights free for players.  Most of the younger players would make their way downtown to the saloons and dance halls, taking full advantage of their celebrity when possible, but the Robinsons, thanks to Racine’s assistance, usually found a quiet restaurant and followed dinner with a movie or a play, at times awed and overwhelmed to be enjoying life in a city where they didn’t have to check windows to see if they were allowed entrance.

Olivier had decided to take Dupleses up on his offer to attend a baseball game.  He had given the cast and crew a weekend off as he made some revisions to the scripts. The high temperatures had made his apartment at the hotel unbearable during the day and he needed distraction from the play in order to attack it anew. Dupleses had given him Racine’s private number and told the owner that he may expect a call during the summer from someone of great import who might be looking for the opportunity to attend a game or two.

When Racine received the initial telephone call, he was skeptical that the gentleman calling was indeed who he said he was, but a mention of Dupleses’ name went a long way to clearing up the situation. Racine told Olivier that he would be delighted in hosting him at the stadium that evening and that it would be a pleasure to take him to dinner following the game.  Racine gave  explicit instructions to the chief of ushers to make sure that all the ushers knew Olivier would be arriving at the ballpark and to escort him personally to Racine’s box located close to the field, along the third baseline.

Racine recounted years later to the Montréal Gazette that Olivier enjoyed the game immensely but initially confused some aspects of baseball with cricket.  Almost twenty-thousand people were in attendance at the game on Friday evening, and, when Robinson hit a three run home run in the sixth inning, each and every one of them were on their feet cheering. Racine said he explained Robinson’s uniqueness within the larger framework of baseball and told Olivier that Robinson was one of the finest men he had ever met.  Later in the game, Robinson stole two bases and scored a run on an infield ground ball in the eighth inning and started the double play that ended the ninth for the visitors.  Olivier was captivated by Robinson, his reserve in being lauded by those in attendance, particularly under the circumstances that Racine had outlined to him concerning the lack of black men in the sport. Racine put forth the suggestion that heask Robinson to join them for their late dinner and Olivier quickly agreed.

It has been suggested that Olivier saw something of himself that night in Robinson: someone so determined in excelling in their chosen craft, someone who would always have a close yet distant relationship with those they are performing for, someone who could capture an audience’s attention and gain their love simply by taking to the stage or field.

At Bouchard’s Steakhouse on St. Catherine, Racine lead his guests to a private table in the back of the restaurant, away from the revelers on a Friday night in Montréal. Racine recounted that both men were socially polite but guarded, valuing their internal privacies, until Olivier rose from the table and demonstrated for Robinson his form for batting in cricket. Robinson doubled over in laughter and told him about teammates from the Negro Leagues who would try to hit in that manner with no success.  Robinson got up and demonstrated the proper stance for baseball, telling him that his focus had to be on one location, the pitcher’s hand, to pick up the rotation of the baseball as soon as possible.  For fifteen minutes, the two men were swinging a yardstick that a waiter had procured for them, knocking imaginary balls to and fro.

Olivier attended two more games that summer as Racine’s guest, delighting in Robinson’s prowess and grace both on and off the field. Following a matinee, Olivier saw Robinson signing autographs for children who had run down to the railing to try to catch the infielder’s attention. Olivier grabbed a program and joined the line, surprising Robinson when he looked up to give another signature.  Olivier invited Robinson and his wife to attend any of the performances that coming week at the theatre as his guest.

Upon learning that the Robinsons would be attending that very evening’s performance, Olivier doubled up on his duties and took the role of Hamlet for himself in addition to directing. The audience was shocked when they saw him take to the stage and gave him a rousing ovation that Dupleses claimed was the loudest and longest his theatre had ever been witness to. At the conclusion of the performance, Olivier made his way to the lobby to greet theatre goers as they were leaving, signing autographs for any and all who asked. Robinson and his wife waited through the line and the two men greeted each other as old friends, peers in the ways in which they could hold an audience’s hopes and dreams in the palms of their hands.  Robinson introduced his wife to the actor and held out a program for an autograph. They shook hands again and parted with a promise to see each other again.

Laurence Olivier continued to use his time in Montréal to work within the confines of Hamlet to find a presentation of the play that would meet both his standards and provide  cinema-goers with an accurate representation of the tragedy. In 1948, he directed and starred in his adaption, winning multiple awards and setting the benchmark for cinematic works of the Bard.

The Montréal Royals, led by Jackie Robinson, continued their strong play through the remainder of the season, ultimately winning the title. According to legend, Robinson was chased down the streets by thousands of fans, one writer noting that it may have been the first time that a black man was chased by so many white men with love, not hate, in their  hearts. Robinson would join the Brooklyn Dodgers the following season, breaking the color barrier and becoming one of the greatest players of all time.

The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, has had many exhibits and displays celebrating the life and career of Jackie Robinson. But it is in another museum, a thousand miles away in the outskirts of Kansas City, that a curious and little remarked item has been on display since 1971. In the Negro League Museum, there is humble tribute to the player, his glove, cleats, newspaper clippings and photographs from the stops he made in his career, including  Montréal. In the glass cabinet, alongside his Royals jersey and contract, is a four-page theatre program, dated July 24th, 1946, for a performance of Hamlet. Written across the width of the front page is a simple dedication: “To Jack, continued success and perseverance as I will be the loudest to cheer you. Larry.”

 


TODD MACEWEN has a background in journalism and communications, and recently moved into the world of fiction.

Copyright © 2018 by Todd MacEwen. All rights reserved.

‘Obsession’ by Jason J. Buchholz

Obsession

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

“For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness…all mortal greatness is but disease.” – Herman Melville, ‘Moby Dick’

Blades of grass whipped around the solemn ceremony with ease, the blustery winds not towing the line for anyone. Clouds of a dark grey floated high above, as if they wanted to drop rain below, but were content just showing up and looking menacing. The priest from the local Catholic church had brought the service to conclusion. Some of the guests had left quickly because of the ominous weather, while others lingered to pay their final respects. The young man who had died in the line of his duty was well-liked and respected by many, navy officers and friends from his hometown had flooded the cemetery to salute him. He’d been taken from the world far too soon.

His father, Captain Robert Drexler, both loved and respected his son. A career navy man, Drexler stood alone under one of the large maple trees, remembering his son. He was in his early fifties, but he didn’t have as much grey in his hair or beard as others would have at this age. Instead, he had lines in the corners of his eyes and down his face, the lines of a man who had seen many battles, and who had been through many things in the navy. He had been put in command of a new class of warship and had been hoping that his son would be transferred under him, so that he could teach him everything he knew. Drexler knew his son could have risen through the ranks to get his own command one day, and he would have been so proud.

But that dream died with his son. His only son. Ryan’s death a week earlier had not broken him, not at all. He cried and grieved like any father would, but he had also lost a part of himself. The loss that he distanced himself from and kept subdued would only grow larger as time passed, none of which was his concern right now. Drexler would finish mourning and then he would do what he had always done in the face of adversity: be a navy officer as best he could. He would carry on with the career that had come to define him. Looking to the grave, he took off his aviator-style sunglasses and wiped his eyes. “I will avenge you son,” he said quietly. “When the time is right.”

Someone was walking up to him. “Rob,” said Admiral Charles Coxwell, the fleet admiral in charge of his navy’s Atlantic operations. “No matter what happens, we’ll get those sons of bitches that did this. Mercenaries have no place on the oceans!” He ran his fingers through his short grey hair to smooth it out. “This is all off the record of course.”

Drexler nodded. “Thank you, sir.” he replied. He put his sunglasses back on. “I’ll see you back on base.” 

“I understand. Take care.” said the Admiral, before walking away.

“We won’t get them.” Drexler whispered, once the Admiral had left. “I will get them, all of them.”

Five Years Later

“There is a wisdom that is woe, but there is a woe that is madness.”

The reinforced steel bow of his ship cut through the water like a hot knife through a block of butter. Waves rippled from the powerful vessel, the wake enough to capsize a small ship or boat easily. Captain Drexler smiled from the bridge of his war ship, the Ellesmere, a heavy missile cruiser and the second ship of the class. The captain’s arms were crossed as he stood between his command chair and the forward windows of the spacious bridge. Crew members milled about as the ship continued forward on its’ patrol route in the north Atlantic, like it had done many times before.

“Commander, you have the conn,” said Captain Drexler to his executive officer, Commander Clive Drummond. 

“Aye Captain,” Drummond replied confidently.  

Drexler grinned at his XO and walked around the weapons console on his way out of the bridge. “I’ll be in my cabin.” he said, before heading out the door. 

Drummond walked over to the space between the captain’s chair and the forward windows and clasped his hands behind his back. “Steady as she goes.” he said to the helmsman.

“Steady as she goes, aye.”

 Drummond had served with Drexler for almost ten years now, and he had spent the last three as Drexler’s executive officer aboard the Ellesmere. They had first met onboard a destroyer in the Pacific fleet when Drummond was a lieutenant and Drexler was the executive officer. Later, after Drexler had been  promoted to captain and had been given command of the Ellesmere, he requested that Drummond be transferred a board, which promoted him to full commander just a couple years ago. It was a great honour to be first officer under Drexler, and it was a duty he did not take lightly. He was very loyal to the captain, carrying out his orders to the letter, all while still maintaining the delicate tightrope that was his relationship with the rest of the crew.

Minutes turned into hours as he kept watch on the bridge, keeping the ship along its patrol route. Sightings of mercenaries and privateers had grown exponentially as of late, with two yachts being attacked and boarded in the last month. No one had been hurt, but there needed to be a solution to the problem regardless. The Ellesmere, along with a few other ships of various navies had been sent to patrol their own sector of the north Atlantic, in hopes that the sight of several heavily armed warships would deter anyone from commencing any more acts of hostility on the open seas. ‘If they come, we’ll be ready.’ thought Drummond.

***

“All that most maddens and torments, all that stirs up the lees of things, all truth with malice in it, all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain, all the subtle demonisms of life and thought…” 

Lights dimmed quickly all over the ship, with some turning a bright red hue as the alarm klaxons began to sound. General quarters had been sounded, with every member of the crew snapping to attention and hurrying to their stations. Drexler was reading froma favourite novel of his when all hell started to break loose. He grabbed his jacket and left his quarters, already on his way to the bridge when Drummond’s voice summoned him there through the intercom. It took him seconds to reach the bridge from his cabin, and he emerged onto the deck ready for action.

“Status report, Commander?” he asked his executive officer.

Drummond was looking out the window with a pair of high-powered binoculars. “Sir,” he began. “Distress call received from a yacht ten kilometers away. They’re being chased by an unknown hostile vessel.” 

Drexler looked to his helm officer, Lieutenant Rick Barnes. “Rick?”

Barnes glanced at his instruments, then looked to the captain. “Speed is 24 knots, holding steady.” he replied. 

Captain Drexler nodded, then looked back to Drummond. “I want more information.” he said. “We need to know as much as possible before we get there. Contact that yacht again, and keep scanning on the radar.” He walked over to his command chair and took a seat. “Lieutenant Barnes, increase speed to twenty-eight knots.” 

Barnes nodded. “Twenty-eight knots, aye.” He made the necessary adjustments on his controls. The ship’s speed climbed as it continued to knife through the waters of the ocean, making its way towards the site of the disturbance with all due speed. 

Then, Drummond spoke up from the communications console. “Captain, we have just received confirmation from the yacht. They have identified the intruder as a mercenary ship.” 

Drexler’s eyes narrowed, and his pulse  sped up, Was it the same ship? Did these mercenaries belong to the same group that killed his son? “Right.” he said “Battle stations! Prepare for combat!”

Drummond didn’t think much of his Captain’s miscue—he turned to the intercom and issued the orders given to him. “Attention all hands! Battle stations, I repeat: Battle stations! This is not a drill!” He hung up the microphone as the alarm again sounded off, with more red lighting coming into being. A glance back to the captain told him that Drexler was distracted, but he assumed it was just a consequence of having the responsibility and stress of making the big decisions.

***

“Talk not to me of blasphemy, man – I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

“We’ve got company!” exclaimed one of the higher-ranking men on the mercenary ship, jumping up from his station at the radar and communications area. 

The captain got up out of his chair and walked over to his communication officer. “Do tell.” he said, a little annoyed at the lack of open conversation about these types of things. 

The young officer looked dismayed. “Spotted a warship heading this way at high speed! They may have picked up the distress signal from that damned yacht we’ve been pursuing.”

The captain nodded and walked back to his chair. He was in his late thirties and considered young by his ragtag crew. He had earned their respect and trust from many operations that he had led, and from distributing the spoils of victory to each and every one of them in ample amounts. He sat down in his chair. “We have the firepower to take them on, but I believe we can out run them.” he said. The had engines retrofitted onto their converted mini-cruise ship. He had stolen the vessel some time ago and kept her in a safe place until he had the necessary funds to refit her and hire a more experienced crew, not to mention add the complement of weapons to her. 

Since then, he and his men had made millions exploiting lesser ships, always staying one step ahead of the authorities. “Forty-five degree turn to starboard.” he ordered. “Let’s see if that floating pile of guns will follow us into the ice field.” He was betting on the fact that the warship wouldn’t take the chance to pursue his vessel into the dangerous pack ice and risk-taking damage to the hull. Suddenly, his communications officer spoke out: “She’s matching our maneuvers, captain!”

“The game’s afoot then.” muttered the Captain.

Drexler slipped his hand into the left pocket of his jacket and pulled out a photograph. It was of a white-hulled cruise ship that was pulling away from the camera, a ship that had markings that would be reserved for pirate or privateer vessels instead. He compared it to the image on the communications monitor on the console. The ship was identical to the one in the picture. And since he didn’t know of any other small cruise ship converted to fight and pillage on the oceans, he concluded that this ship was the same one that caused his son’s death. 

He knew what had to be done now. “Mirror their course, helmsman.” he ordered. “Take us into the pack ice.” He took a seat in his chair. 

Drummond frowned. “Sir, may I remind you that our hull isn’t designed for icebreaking?” 

Drexler smiled. “I appreciate your input, commander. But we’re going after them.” 

Drummond nodded. “Yes sir.” He turned around and went back to doing his job. 

‘I’ll be damned if I let that ship get away!’  thought Drexler. “I will avenge my son, if it’s the last thing I ever do!” His anger and hateful thoughts about the privateers and their ship began to swirl around in his head. He was no longer a rational man.

“Commander,” he said to his first officer. “Fire a warning shot across their bow with the forward gun. Let them know we won’t stand down.” 

Drummond nodded. “Yes captain.” He issued the appropriate orders, and the Ellesmere fired a burst from her forward Bofors cannon. The shell splashed down right in front of the enemy vessel but was unable to provoke a reaction or hail of any kind. 

“No change in their course,” said the commander.

 Drexler’s eyes narrowed. “Oh no,” he said quietly. “You’re not getting away.” He focused on his quarry. He would not let it out of his sight until he witnessed its destruction.

***

“To the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

Ellesmere shook slightly as she took some fire from the enemy vessel’s rear guns, her reinforced hull taking the brunt of the hits, the damage minimal. Captain Drexler got up out of his chair and looked out the windows. His anger was rising. 

Drummond rushed up beside him. “Minor damage sir. The hull is holding. Suggest we move out of range and regroup. We can contact the rest of the task force and then—”

“NO!” yelled Drexler. “We go after them and take them down. They must not be allowed to hurt any other vessels!” Some people from the bridge crew started to look up from their stations.

“Very well sir.” replied Drummond. “What are your orders?”Drexler looked to the window port, then back at Drummond. “Return fire!” he ordered. 

Drummond issued the commands, and the forward Bofors turret let loose several shots, all of them striking the enemy vessel amidships, smoke starting to swirl out of it. The Ellesmere rocked again. They had been hit by more cannon fire from the mercenaries, and this time they had incurred some damage. Drummond waited for the damage report to come in before informing the captain, who was already issuing new orders and trying to out-maneuver the enemy vessel.

Before Drummond could deliver his report, the ship lurched violently. He heard an explosion. A couple of the bridge windows cracked, but they did not shatter. Crew members that had been thrown off their feet picked themselves back up off the deck and hurried to their stations. “Captain!” said Drummond, turning to face Drexler. “Forward Bofors cannon destroyed! Looks bad!”

Drexler got out of his chair and looked down to the gunnery deck. “Damn!” he said. “Get some men on the fifty caliber machine guns! Activate Harpoon launchers! Those bastards are going to pay for this!” 

The Ellesmere lurched again, shaking from another hit. Just as Drexler was about to ask where they had been hit, he heard the chief engineer’s voice on the intercom. “Bridge! Engine room! We can’t keep taking hits like this!” 

Captain Drexler activated the intercom control and spoke to the engine room. “Engine room, bridge. Keep her together and give me all available power! That’s an order!” 

Drummond felt they should pull back and regroup. He was about to suggest this idea to the captain, but an explosion knocked him to the ground. It was an impact from a weapon that had delivered a direct hit to the starboard wing of the bridge.

***

  “And he piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the rage and hate felt by his whole race. If his chest had been a cannon, he would have shot his heart upon it.”

Smoke filled the bridge compartment. Fires were starting to rage all over. Captain Drexler coughed and wheezed as he regained consciousness. When he opened his eyes, he could see how big of a disasterthe bridge was. Control stations were wrecked, there were bodies lying on the deck nearby. He crawled over to the nearest body on his hands and knees, only to find Commander Drummond. Drexler put his fingers to his commander’s neck. No pulse. “No,” he muttered, looking across the bloody uniform of his first officer. Drexler coughed again as he struggled in getting to his feet, using the nearest console as an aid.

The smoke was pouring out a gaping hole in the bridge, giving him enough visibility to look out for what was left of the forward windows. The mercenary ship was ahead by a few kilometers, “Not getting away.” mumbled Drexler. He noticed his right hand was covered in blood, and it was also dripping from his forehead. On the weapons board, he saw that one Harpoon missile launcher was active and locked on target. The key was in, and power was still available. “My turn.” he said, turning the key all the way, and pushing the red launch button with his index finger.

A single Harpoon missile lanced out from its launcher, the flames of its engine the only thing visible. Drexler watched as it struck its target with efficiency, wiping out the whole upper rear deck, and mangling their weapons and other vital machinery. The explosion blew pieces of the mercenary ship into the water, and as he watched. Drexler smiled maniacally. He saw the ship start to turn and try to get away, and he started to scream. He was losing his grip on reality. “No!!” yelled, moving back to the helm controls. He was starting to lose consciousness again.

“The line must be drawn here! This far! No further!” he yelled, the grin on his face now sinister. “And I will make you pay for what you have done!” He slammed the speed control to full, power still routing to the engines. The ship started to move forwards, and as it did, he got to his feet and looked out ahead. The mercenary ship was now dead in the water, its white hull and decks now a mess of fire damage and smoke, men scurrying back and forth on her main deck. Drexler looked around his own bridge at the dead, and the damage done. Fires were still burning, and the ship was almost beyond repair. He calmly sat down in his command chair and gripped the armrests as the ship careened towards the mercenaries. “For you, my son” he whispered. He thought about his boy and slipped into unconsciousness for the final time.

***

“Thus, I give up the spear!”         

“Tell the men to amp up their efforts on the engines! If we can’t get her going, we’ll have to—” 

The captain’s order was interrupted by another one of his bridge crew. “Sir!” yelled the man. “She’s going to ram us!” 

“What?!” 

The captain rushed to the bridge’s starboard viewport. He gasped and was left speechless as he saw the damaged warship heading straight for his vessel, smoke billowing from the battle damage, fires burning all over her. The forward Bofors gun was bent and its housing destroyed, and yet the ship continued on its heading on a collision course with his own vessel! 

He knew that there was no time to move his ship. “Brace for impact!” he yelled, running for his own chair in vain. Ten seconds later, the warship’s hull tore into the mercenary’s converted cruise ship, ripping it apart like it was made of paper. Men were thrown onto the deck, or into the water. As the captain crashed into the deck, the deafening sound of metal against metal filled his ears. Then, explosions tore through both ships, and the unused armaments caught fire. Fireballs ripped through both ships, before two massive explosions blew both vessels to pieces, sending debris and fire shooting in all directions, oil slicks surfacing and igniting as well.                                          

Not a man was left alive, as the two burning wrecks slowly slipped below the waves of the ocean, along with one man’s hatred, sorrow, and obsession.

“And the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

 


JASON J. BUCHHOLZ has been writing fictional works and such for quite some time now, and has finally made the decision in regards to becoming a published writer. The story Obsession is a modern day take on the classic Moby Dick.

Copyright © 2018 by Jason J. Buchholz. All rights reserved.

‘A Man Of Unimpeachable Credentials’ by Mark Fenton

Impeachable Credentials

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

Vernon Seymour watched Tillsonburg, Ontario shrink in his rear-view mirror. Barring any unfortunate twists, it should be his last view of the city.

Not that he hadn’t enjoyed his time in that quaint little town; Vern’s employers tended to his needs as much as he tended to theirs throughout their collaboration. Significantly more so in fact. There were many who knew and respected Vern. He had quickly melded into the small community, and had been welcomed into the most esteemed and prestigious organizations. The power in his words and the ability to shift his message depending upon the audience drew both the liberal and conservative minded to his speaking engagements. Equal parts philosopher, counsellor and sage, the masses viewed him as a leader, and the moral compass that the community should follow.

Those who knew but didn’t respect him were a quiet, embarrassed few, but not so quiet that the odd whisper didn’t escape. These people, some of the women of the community, viewed Vernon Seymour in an entirely different light. They compared him to Rasputin, some tones reverent, others disgusted.

So great was the power wielded by this demigod in their midst that when those who had regretted their entanglements shared their stories to others, the resultant backlash was swift and severe.

How could you say such things about this great man?”

“Why would you lie about Vern? He is above reproach!”

Shame quickly silenced the victims. Those few who saw through the wolf’s mask found themselves isolated, even from their lifelong friends who believed this man on the pedestal over them.

You see, good old Vern opened his doors to people, and they opened their hearts and souls to him, telling the trusted counsellor their darkest secrets, and most intimate details; those things women would dare not share with others. He listened patiently, providing sage advice and tactfully drawing out the most intimate details. Then, when meeting these same people privately as friends, he would throw these details back in their faces, the way a monkey will throw shit at its enemies, deriding them and crushing their spirit when they didn’t bow to his wishes. That is, until they did. Once in his grip, he lorded over his victims at every opportunity, the master manipulator always in control. But in the public eye, the Angel Vernon was always on display.

Eventually though, whispers grew louder and even his greatest defenders conceded that where there was smoke, there had to be fire. In the fourth year of Seymour’s residency in this charming town, things finally caught up with him. His employers met with Vernon privately and told him it was time to leave. His attempts to charm, sway and deny almost worked, but they held firm.

Most men would have conceded their fate and disappeared before the fire burned their ass any hotter, but when it came to balls, Vernon Seymour had big brass ones. He demanded and received a paid move to his next location, a severance package, and a glowing reference letter. This was on top of several ‘loans’ he had received from multiple women of high standing in the community who would never see a penny back. His employers were only aware of a few of the women left conned, swindled, and broken in his wake, but there were dozens. With few notable exceptions, financial loss was their only punishment for becoming caught in Vernon Seymour’s vacuuming vortex.

Vern thought of one of those notable exceptions as he drove down the highway, distancing himself from Tillsonburg. I should have drawn the line at my secretary, he thought. Then he started laughing. It’s right in the Bible. Though shalt not use thy rod on thy staff. My apologies to King David and the twenty-third psalm.

After noon on day three of his westward travels, Vern saw his new home in the distance, and smiled when he saw the sign. Welcome To The Friendly City.

“And on the third day, he rose again,” he said aloud.

Vern couldn’t move into the house he’d purchased for two more days, so he checked into The Temple Gardens Hotel And Spa. After supper, he drove around town for an hour, getting familiar with the layout and his new place of business. He walked through Crescent Park, following the serpentine creek where ducks paddled, introducing himself to those out enjoying the summer day and striking up conversations.

After supper, Moose Jaw’s newest resident returned to the hotel and changed in to his bathing suit. He took the elevator to the large mineral pool on the fourth floor, and did what Vern does best– schmooze and learn a bit more about this place he’d chosen as home. It was important to get to know people, but more important that they knew him.

Back in his room, Vern poured himself a scotch on the rocks, and opened his laptop to prepare for the next day. Facebook and Instagram provided most of what he needed. Profiles of married people with mostly solitary photos, or some with everybody except their spouses told one story. Snapshots of couples together told yet another depending on how close they were, how they touched, their smiles or lack thereof. He took notes, memorized faces, names, and whole families, then Googled specific people of interest to him.

The next morning, Vernon Seymour dressed and ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant, after which he brushed, flossed and preened himself for the most important meeting he would ever have in this town: the first one with his new employers at nine a.m.

Vern arrived twenty minutes early, parking several spots back from the entrance. He watched the people who went into the building, sizing them up, putting names to faces. At five minutes to nine, he added the last touch to his wardrobe, affixing his white clerical collar. The Reverend Vernon Seymour left his car and walked up the stairs to the building where he would meet his new employers, The Church Council. He opened the door, and walked in. The fox had found a new henhouse.

 


MARK FENTON is a writer who was born in Niagara Falls, Ontario, but now lives in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He is a husband, father and grandfather. Mark has been a passionate writer since childhood, and is a member of The Moose Jaw Night Writers.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Fenton. All rights reserved.