‘My Uncle, Me, and Psychosis’ by Janet Stewart

My Uncle

 

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

I’ll always remember when I was three and stepped up onto a new sidewalk that was too high for me, almost to my knees. I can still do it now, figuratively. My uncle held my hand and helped me up; my mentally ill uncle, my favourite Uncle Lloyd. He’s still holding my hand now: we shared the same genes for psychotic disorder. I didn’t quite inherit the destiny of isolation and rejection he experienced. He lived very much alone and my family never visited him.

Psychiatry had improved slightly by the time I came under its care: there were antipsychotics. I mothered my daughterhis child died a blue baby in England just after World War II, which may be what set him off in the first place. He came back to Canada without his wife, behaving strangely, painting the rooms of his family home in Rivière-du-Loup in bright pastels. I was told that it was shell shock from the war. I doubt he ever got a proper diagnosis or medication.

As my predecessor, my true family roots lie in him. My father told me, “Late at night, he used to walk the streets of a small town where he lived near the Veteran’s Hospital.” I wonder how he knew that. He worked on oil paintings at Gran’s place when I was very small, but I’ve never seen any of his works anywhere since. By the time I felt a need to learn more, Gran had died, and no one else knew much about him.

In 1989, I had my first episode of psychosis at about the same age he did, at 33. I had also just arrived back home in Montreal after working overseas. During that first episode, when my daughter was two, I talked my way into a Master of Science program: Virology and Immunology, mainly because I thought I was a genius. I didn’t tell anyone that I thought I was a genius because I believed that I was on a secret mission to come up with a cure for HIV. I felt at home at the Institut Armand-Frappier in Laval and was proud of its tradition of vaccine production and research. It was only after six months into the Master’s program that I was finally diagnosed with psychosis and medicated, and I decided to finish the degree even though I realized that I am not a genius.

I left in good standing with the publication of an original contribution. That led to enrollment in a Ph.D. program at McGill University, where I didn’t fare as well. I didn’t feel accepted there and became depressed. It ended in another episode of psychosis that put a stop to the Ph.D. in 1994. Then, I supported my daughter and myself by eking out a living as a freelance scientific writer, bogged down by the heavy medication. My love for my daughter was my reason for getting up in the morning and overcoming the curse of inertia caused by the antipsychotic medication until, in 2003, I was worn down by a third episode of psychosis struck that lasted five years.

 

2003-2008

When the third episode was building in me in the autumn of 2003, I got into an argument with my father, which I had never done before. It was over why we had never visited Uncle Lloyd, his brother, and why nobody had told me when he died. I asked where he was buried and when his birthday was, and my father didn’t even know. My mother remembered what cemetery he was buried in. So, on the 60th anniversary of D-Day during the spring of 2004, in full-blown psychosis, I went to the Field of Honour Cemetery, where a tent had been set up by the Last Post Memorial people. They looked up the number of his grave for me. R. L. Stewart was clearly marked on the cracked gravestone, with the wrong year of death. I left flowers.

His full name was Raymond Lloyd, and I never would have found his grave if my father hadn’t told me that during our argument. I must be the only family member to have visited his grave after his funeral,  although he had five brothers and two sisters with 18 kids among them. I’m probably the only kid in the family to hold his hand or to ask my grandmother what he was doing when he talked, though he was alone. The only one who would ask her when he would visit her next, the only one of his nieces and nephews to remember him with fondness. He would silently mouth words in a conversation with empty air. I remember the incredulous look on his face when he did. It was as though some arbitrary, crushing injustice was being handed to him by the person he was talking to, and pleading with, although nobody was there.

I was six or seven when he died. In the fall of 2003, I wished I could go back in time and talk to him. I felt strongly that I could get through to him even in his psychotic state and have meaningful conversationstreat him like a sensitive individual, listen to him, make him feel I’m there, find something to laugh about together.

I wrote a little piece about my recollections of him, what I would say to him if he was alive: “Life is better now for people like us.”  I sent it to the members of my immediate family.

I wasn’t aware then of the dire circumstances many people with schizophrenia live in today, nor did I foresee my own homelessness.  My copy got lost along with almost all of my other belongings during the last bout of psychosis and homelessness, but I did manage to save the handout from the Last Post Memorial with the number of his grave written on it. I can find his grave again.

I fought off treatment with antipsychotic medication for five years, even demonstrating in court that I did not constitute a danger to myself or others. One of the tenants in the slum I was living in threatened to kill me, so I moved into another slum to get away from him, making trips across the street loaded down with the few belongings I had left. And so it went when I was psychotic: escaping real or imagined threats, abandoning my possessions bit by bit, one crisis at a time, until I no longer had a place to live.

I finally hit the wall and ended up homeless in 2008. I was sent by ambulance to psychiatric emergency by the workers at a women’s shelter and finally came out of the psychosis a few weeks later.

 

2015

Now it’s autumn, about fifty-five years after stepping up onto that sidewalk with Uncle Lloyd and seven years after stepping off the psychiatric ward for the last time. No more delusions, and no more slums for me now, either. I am back among the living, with my old friends, a new career, out of poverty, misery, isolation, and mental instability.

Supposedly I have recovered, I’m often told that I’m amazing and that I inspire people, but don’t feel particularly inspired. Most of the time I hardly feel anything, I don’t feel like myself, I’ve just been hanging on. I don’t cry, I don’t laugh. I’m told I’m doing well considering. I add, “only compared to before.” I silently complete the thought: I am doing well for someone with schizophrenia. It’s as though people with schizophrenia should be content with a quality of life that would be unacceptable to most.

But I’m a success story according to the professionals, probably because I work. No matter what I tell her, my psychiatrist doesn’t seem to understand how slow and painful it is, that something is wrong, or what really keeps me goingwhich is, that I’m convinced I’ll eventually feel good, feel right, and really laugh again . . . feel like myself. 

I’ve recovered from psychosis before, that’s why I’m so sure. It took me six years to feel like myself after the episode in 1994, and this last episode was much, much worse. So, I just keep learning to function better, until I can start feeling again.

Autumn is my favourite time of year. These days, I walk in beautiful weather to the subway on my way to work. I pass the little huddle of Caribbean stores at a corner near my apartment.  I wonder what that restaurant is all aboutmostly men and some gaudy women, drinking outside on the sidewalk on Saturday nights with music spilling out. They seem to be having such a good time that they take no notice of me when I walk through their universe.  

Nelson Mandela Park: in the summer, the older men sit on the benches talking and watching the passersby. Cars pull up blaring reggae, and the few women are all dressed to the nines. I can’t imagine feeling comfortable or welcome sitting in the park, with only the odd woman there and no white people. It’s a public park and I know nothing bad would happen if I did, I just feel that there are invisible barriers that I would breach. I wonder about the story behind naming the park after Nelson Mandela. I feel that he is part of me too.

When Mandela died, in the late autumn of 2013, there were a few dried-out bunches of flowers strewn over the dedicatory plaque, a few candles, trees bare, dead leaves blown across the frozen ground. The park was abandoned and desolate.

Slums to the east and slums to the west of me.  I live amongst a few blocks of middling, trimmed hedges, mowed lawns, and working peoplemostly Asian, brown and black. I’m a member of a visible minority in this neighbourhood, and oh! a member of an invisible minority, an often reviled and hated minority. But I forget about the schizophrenia more and more.

I tap “Create Document” on my iPad, then on “Blank Document,” and bring up a blank screen entitled “Blank 3”. I love the blank page, but have no notion what Blanks 1 and 2 are! I don’t notice or remember much. There are loose ends in evidence all over, the Tupperware I didn’t put back in the cupboard after cleaning it months ago, the shards of a ceramic dish I haven’t glued back together yet, the dead DVD player I’ve been meaning to take to the recycling depotbut I’ve misplaced the address. The dust. Is it only the side effects of the antipsychotic?

I’ve been on and off antipsychotics enough times to know the difference. It’s huge. The people who rejoice in telling me that I’m doing so well on meds don’t realize that I live in a prison of fog. Antipsychotics do get rid of my delusions, but they wipe out a lot more than just psychosis, things like having some oomph and feeling alive. I’ll never cease to hate those pills. They’re a necessary evil, a witch’s spell, almost as destructive as the spell I’m under when psychotic. Added to that, five years of paranoia and delusions thoroughly fried my brain, too fried to work in science, which I was happy doing.

For seven years, I’ve been getting used to people again, no longer so put off by the demands and deceptions required in order to socialize. People seemed so petty and fake in my initial forays into the working world when I came off the street. Then reading, using computers, driving, cooking, working, even just getting a grip, all had to be re-learned.

I work on a mental health team that cares mainly for those most severely affected with schizophrenia, doing home visits. I work with people who live in isolation and misery, in slums that smell, often with cockroaches and bedbugs and filth, the only lodgings they can afford on their meagre disability pensions. I’ve been there myself, partly why I was hired. Having experienced homelessness was also considered to be a plus for this job! Times are changing.

The team’s goal is to keep our clients stable enough to get into a routine, to help them care for themselves and live in the community. I shudder at the thought of how most will end up in old age, with health and quality of life deteriorated from decades of neglect and poverty.

Claire is around 50. Many of her teeth are rotting and coming loose. She refuses to go to the dentist though it’s covered on her disability pension. “Nobody likes to go to the dentist,” I tell her. I had woken her up in the middle of the afternoon pounding on the door to her apartment. “I’ve come for our appointment to clean your place together, remember?” I say though I know that remembering appointments is the furthest thing from her mind. She goes back to bed and soon I can’t shake her awake again. She’s on the verge of being evicted because four times she’s left things on the stove that started fires. The team decided to take out the stove’s fuse and I went with Claire to buy a slow cooker that shuts off automatically.

According to my team, my work is “superb.” I get through to people that the other members of the team can’t. One, in particular, doesn’t respond to medication:  he’s delusional but he listens to me. Sometimes. He doesn’t like the team; I think he finds it intrusive. But he knows he needs people he can depend on and that his parents, whom he currently relies on, won’t live forever. That much I’ve got across to him in his more lucid moments. But he still doesn’t like the team. He wants to get laid and I’m way out of the right age range so I’m not a target. The younger women on the team feel it though.

I’m beginning to realize that I have the wrong attitude for this job. My co-workers are dedicated to making our clients’ lives the best they can be. Buried deep in me is the knowledge that I barely escaped the fate of my clients and still only just manage to take care of myself properly. don’t have much in the way of solutions for our clients, as I don’t for myself, either. “Just force yourself to do things, until they’re second nature. It may take years. You have to force and push yourself for the rest of your life, in fact: it’s a chronic illness, a disability.”

That’s what I feel like saying when I see some of them.  I also tell myself that when I get home to my own dusty, cluttered apartment that I am so careless about. But I never tell my clients that they need to push themselves, it’s not the recommended approach. Most of them aren’t ready, according to the recovery model of peer support. Will they ever be ready? I’m supposed to be the bright light of recovery and hope, an inspiration. Talk of the miracle of recovery, perhaps, when I really don’t believe in miracles. Give hope. Be a role model. I don’t think my clients would want the kind of life I lead now.

The suffocating silence that surrounds schizophrenia stifles me too. My friends don’t ask me what I did during those five years of delusions, and they change the subject when I bring up my present challenges, though I listen to all the details of their ailments. Nobody sent me flowers when I finally ended up in the psychiatric ward, no Get Well cards, and only my daughter visited me there. People had given up on me, had stopped contacting me, and had moved on during the five years I was psychotic. I didn’t exist for them anymore.

“Now you’re doing great, you’re okay now,” a friend said, as though all those traumatic experiences don’t take a toll.

There’s too much, it’s too big for me: five years of psychosis, the medication change that caused the episode (a medical error), homelessness, emptiness: no connection, no drive, no motivation, no direction, no feelings, just groping in the dark for so many years, no laughter, no joy, no pleasure. Not even any tears. All these thoughts and feelings crowd together, I want to get them all out, but they leave me paralyzed, and I can’t find the words to answer him. I am also responsible for the silence that I hate so much.

Where to begin? In the full knowledge that the people around me don’t want to hear or think about it. Instead, “You’re rocking!” a friend said when I got the job on the mental health team. But when I told her I never feel like doing anything, that I have to force myself to do everything, something it’s hard to admit to because I feel so guilty and ashamed about it, she quickly changed the subject. Friends only want to hear about the successes. “It’s too hard to hear about how much you’ve been suffering,” she finally told me one day. Another friend told me, “Just don’t talk to me about mental illness.” A very good friend.

Uncle Lloyd was even more hidden behind, what I’ve come to consider, a wall of fascist silence. It has denied us our identities to the point that I am probably the only person alive who ever thinks about him. As a family, we learned nothing from the way he lived and died. He was erased by the silence. So far, I haven’t broken through the walls around my own schizophrenia. I’m waiting for the right opportunities, the right moments, the right words, the right audience. So I write. I’m starting by writing this. I hope that someday we’ll all know what to say and how to say it.

 


JANET STEWART works in the areas of mental health research, teaching, and care and in scientific writing.

Copyright © 2020 by Janet Stewart. All rights reserved.

 

‘The city and oneself: fragments about residing temporarily in Montreal’ by Andrea Reed-Leal

The City and Oneself.jpg

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

Today, May 3rd, the weather is splendid. Seated on a bench at Parc la Fontaine, I observe people picnicking with friends and family, jogging or walking their dogs. The sky is covered in clouds and we are all still wearing jackets. For a Montrealer, this is a splendid day to be outside. The artificial lake in front of me holds barely any water. The winter froze (almost) everything. Some trees around me start to pop light green dots in their branches; the park itself remains entirely naked. Although not perceived aloud, I can hear the excitement of the city (the real sounds of the urban society, ultimately more poetic than the sound of the wind). Well-liked and popular though it is, this city encompasses great contradictions. But which city does not? Montreal is a city of the multiple: language is fluid and accents abound; diversity is desirable. “Where are you from?” becomes a common line to start a conversation. Montreal, a city of merchants and bankers and, also, of beauty, art, and pleasures.

 

The city is not just an entity—closed, limited, static or invariable; on the contrary, a city is a fluid phenomenon, actively changing through time. A philosophy of the city, proposed by Henri Lefebvre, Roland Barthes, and others, resolved questions about the importance of the space in the making of communities. Relations between society and the space mold the experience of this alive space. The city changes alongside its society—it is shaped by the movement of peoples and their encounters. A city produces knowledge and continually mirrors the being of its society. Social relations determine the essence of a city, while state and economic powers simultaneously maintain the (dis)order of a city. As Henri Lefebvre wrote, “The city is a mediation among mediators.” How long does someone need to be in the city to become part of it?

 

The resident, as the name defines it, lives in the city. The resident possesses a fragmented space of the city from where she or he can depart and come back to (house, apartment, or room). The migration status limits the time of the resident in the country. If I become something else/someone new—because of the social interactions and intimate mirrorings with a particular city—, the state limits the amount of time I am allowed to be this. Such is the power of states and societies.

 

There is a radical distinction between an inhabitant and a tourist. The temporal resident, however, stands in the borderline between the two. Contrary to someone simply passing by—seduced by the industry of tourism—a temporal resident notices subtle changes in the space through time, because, although he or she still is a foreigner, everything is new. Slowly, she or he becomes accustomed to the city’s specificities that one moment before had produced excitement. Senses are wide open—as a tourist who visits a city for the first time and can only see the space as an exotic object. The temporal resident, however, also perceives the intimate incidents of the city—the freedom in walking alone in the streets, the hours of light changing every single day, the silent irritation caused by a sudden snowstorm or the fact that no one will say “bless you” after a sneeze. The tourist is an isolated being in a city perpetually moving. Whereas, even for brief moments, a temporal resident becomes a part of the wheel of daily life. Tourists observe life as outsiders, as an anthropologist studying a community or as a spectator in a theater. A society produces and recreates culture and the aesthetics of the space.

 

Certainly, the tourist plays an important role in the imagining of the city and on the experience of it. But, what is it? That is a different story. What the tourist sees when he or she visits a city differs radically from the experience of the resident.

 

If the city mirrors the group (or groups) pertaining to a certain historical and social moment, the temporal resident—who participates in the wheel of daily life with actions, decisions, codes, and conducts, shapes the city as an insider. The reality affects the individual: everything, for instance, odors, sounds of voices, errands, sensations of excitement and boredom, mold the experience of being in a place. Somehow, this “reality” defines the temporal resident—who learns to collect instants in memories because he or she understands that all experiences will be soon (or are already) lost. Nothing, then, is more important than the sensations a place gives to you. Only through time, the temporal inhabitant creates attachments to his or her surroundings: some faces become known, temporal friendships emerge, the language transmutes into something less “foreign.” And, suddenly, the resident recognizes himself or herself in the (unknown) other. The attachment resides in how I abruptly feel for the Other: I understand something of the man sited next to me reading Peter Mendelsund or of the lonely woman peeling an orange from afar.

 

Societies share an understanding of how to manage, approach and shape their spaces. Therefore, in the public space, the essence of cohabitation (how to treat each other) references such agreements.

 

To know the habits, the rituals, and the way of life one must spend time observing the continuities and discontinuities of the city. Change and movement constantly reimagine the space. A philosophy of the city recognizes the transitions, disappearances, obstacles, and internal conflicts conceiving the social space. Reflections on the transformation of the city emphasize articulations of being in the city. What am I in this city? How have I changed (because of it)?

 

For a temporal resident, it is acceptable not to treat the city as an object of exploration (although, as a “new” space, in the beginning, it is unavoidable). There is time to discover (and be discovered). The temporal resident appropriates the city by letting it appear by necessity, just as it happens to the permanent inhabitant. Daily life affairs provide excuses to visit new neighborhoods. By giving oneself to everyday life—letting it influence you, while, simultaneously inscribing the space with your own individual history—the resident eventually learns to move around the space. In other words, through daily life, he or she establishes a sense of belonging to that community.

 

For a resident, the city displays both joy and sorrow, abundance and poverty. Experiences of daily life include those affairs that might not be so desirable but are, nonetheless, unavoidable. That is, temporal residents, share the politics of being a citizen—making lines to pay taxes, paying visits to hospitals, and opening bank accounts—. From a perspective of daily life, traffic, city constructions, and work become annoyances—dealings which, commonly, invite boredom, confusion, and dissatisfaction. To understand a place is to see its aesthetics of decline as well.

 

The city is, as Henri Lefebvre argues, “an oeuvre, closer to a work of art than to a simple material product.”

 

Somehow, after some months, I notice the changes in odors. The winter is over, all living things come back (including aspects of myself). Ants make geometrical figures in the pavement. A dead squirrel lies next to the speeding bicycles crossing the park. Owners walk their dogs, taking their time. I notice the smells of new life. My eyes cry and my nose sneezes constantly. The air I breathe changes. I get a terrible (once in a lifetime) sinusitis. I cannot breathe. My eyes continue to cry. I am on antibiotics. I cannot be out (again). Being in this city becomes exhausting.

 

To feel comfortable in a space, I must first inhabit it. After a few months in the apartment, I still felt like a foreigner leaving soon. I transformed the space forme, and suddenly my (temporal) home became familiar. Temporality allows you to modify, in turn, your life according to space. The public pool near my home became a known space after many visits. On a sunny but cold afternoon of February, I swam for an hour, expiring through my nose and inspiring through my mouth (changing the normal structure of breathing). I could listen clearly to the breath beneath the water and the rhythm of this (new) daily life. As I stopped in the borderline to rest, I felt the heat on my skin. To visit this pool reminds me of all the other pools I have visited in other cities: the blue color of the floors, the warm atmosphere, the movement of the water. It is possible, I thought, to link experiences elsewhere to this particular moment.

Learning to be in a new city requires to let your senses identify and understand the surroundings. It is required first, and foremost, to learn how to move around: Is it safe to walk to the pool at night? Is the bus faster than the metro?

 

If the city (buildings, streets, transportation, businesses, universities, etc.) reflects its social interactions—that is, the unconscious multiple daily relations between millions of people, then all public displays tell something about the soul (thoughts, aims, identity) of its society. Festivals, museum exhibitions, and public spaces collect the “essence” of the people. I am amazed by all the experimental art taking place in theatres, galleries, and museums. The city (and, therefore, the people) encourages the exploration of new sensations almost all the time. Artists confidently do so. There is a degree of charm and pride in doing (being) something outside the conventional. All this combined provokes something very odd in me: What am I allowed to do (be) here? May I liberate what I have had to hide all this time? What does this freedom mean?

 

Roland Barthes accompanies me in the library. With him by my side, I notice the particular light of this room: bright white illuminating the walls and shades of yellow and blue coming from the shelves. It is difficult to read Barthes in French, but I try it anyway because I am in a French-speaking city and I desperately want to be like them. I question if, after all this time, I have not become somehow like them and if the borders between “them” and “me” have disappeared. After all, how many people experience the city temporarily just like me?

Hundreds of individuals surround me either reading, writing, or exploring the bookshelves. The couches and tables are comfortable. This is a peaceful space. I sit here for hours until the light of the day blurs out. Today the sun rose at 5:15. The light comes through the green curtain of my bedroom and wakes me. The changing in the space affects me in levels that go beyond the imagined. More hours of light mean more outdoor activities—and more energy in my body and mind.

 

In the metro, quite full of young people, a young woman with earphones stands next to me. I can hear her Spanish audiobook (she is probably a student here). I get off the train at the next stop. I cannot stand being myself just a student living temporarily in Montreal. I started walking in the deserted neighborhood. Construction invades the streets.  I walk until, forty-five minutes later, I arrive home (quite angry). Time has allowed me to be a Montrealer, and soon I will have to become something else. The nostalgia of leaving defines the experience of residing temporarily. I have become attached to this space. How can I accept change again? Thinking about the possibility of never coming back stimulates my melancholia. I constantly remind myself, “you are here”, “remember this.” Already, however, memories disappear. I cannot picture the city filled with snow anymore. I see only tulips on the streets.

 


ANDREA REAL-LEAL is a graduate student of history at McGill University. In 2017, she published her first book El Río que no vemos. Crónicas de Tizapán (CDMX: ITAM, 2017). She has also published essays, book reviews, and short stories, in Opción, Luvina, Acentos Review, and Punto en Línea. Her current research project focuses on early medieval female involvement in the production and circulation of manuscripts.

Copyright © 2019 by Andrea Real-Leal. All rights reserved.

 

‘Consequences’ by Dalia Gesser

Consequences

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

When we live our lives on the edge, with no regard for how we conduct ourselves or how we treat our mates, it’s no surprise that consequences usually follow. I picked up an inebriated man in my cab, late one evening, outside a local bar. He needed to get home or maybe he just ran out of drinking money and called it ‘a night’. It’s all too common for the intoxicated ones, having just imbibed in a ‘bottle of courage’, to rant on about some ridiculous situation they became embroiled in, which of course they’re never at fault.           This forty something-year-old was no different. Having no filter, he began spewing his drunken opinions during the short drive to his residence. I was all too familiar with this behavior and how easily an innocent comment could set them off, so I tried to keep the conversation light. This gentleman, however, most probably due to his uninhibited state, felt the need to share the ongoing conflict he was having with his spouse.

“Oh my wife doesn’t care much for my drinking,” he confided in me.

“Why is that?” I asked sarcastically, trying to humour him.

“I don’t know,” he said. “You’d think she’d be used to it by now.”

“Maybe she hopes you’ll change,” I said more sincerely.

“She’s always trying to change me,” he said complaining.

“We all have room for improvement,” I said.

“When she met me, she knew that I like to drink and she did too,” he said trying to defend himself.

“Well, people don’t always stay the same, especially as we get older,” I said.

“You got that right,” he said, a bit upset. “If she doesn’t drink, the least she could do is not bug me about what I like to do.”

“Well maybe she wants the best for you and doesn’t want to see you have long term health problems,” I said.

“I know, but if I don’t care she shouldn’t either.”

“Easier said than done.”

“True.”

Just as I pulled up to the man’s home, we both witnessed someone throwing clothes out of an upstairs window. We watched as the smaller items floated down gracefully while the larger ones landed on the lawn with a thud.

“This doesn’t look good,” the man commented.

“I guess not.” I replied. “Am I to assume that’s your wife tossing out your clothes?”

“Ya,” he said in shock.

This situation was so cliché. I could easily imagine, without meeting her, the script leading up to this scene. The numerous comments and threats she made to him about his drinking or spending money or, more likely, both, judging by the neighbourhood where they lived. Then there were his endless promises to change, which never amounted to anything concrete, only leading to escalating disappointment. The numerous frustrated rounds, voices raised, before he would leave the house in a huff. He would always return ‘three sheets to the wind’ after the bar closed at 2:00 a.m.

Tonight, after their argument, he took off to the bar as usual, but this time her anger brewed. This time, after reaching her limit, she made the decision not to continue on the same path with this man who was incapable of modifying his habits. After a few hours of smoking many cigarettes, pacing around the house, maybe speaking to a girlfriend which included many tears, she came to terms that change was overdue. She brainstormed, possibly with her girlfriend, decided on the best plan, mustered up the courage and carried it through. Good for her.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” he said as more garments filled the yard.

Yes, he was that clueless.

“Lori!” he called up to her.

Lori stared down at him as he craned his head out of the open cab window but said nothing. At this point what could he possibly say? As drunk as he was, he seemed to understand at least that much. Her action spoke volumes. She popped her head back inside then after a few seconds and resumed her mission, more garments came tumbling downwards.

“I never thought she’d go and do this!” the guy exclaimed.

Was this his best defense?

“Well I guess she had enough,” I said stating the obvious.

As the reality of his wife’s actions sank in, a look of guilt spread across his face. The man got out of the cab, walked over to the clothes spread across the front yard, and began picking them up with a saddened expression. He was clearly at a loss as to how to deal with this pathetic situation.

“Lori, Lori,” this upstanding citizen called up to the second floor again.

It was all to no avail. Lori ignored his pleas.

“Where else can I take you,” I asked the distraught man trying to make him understand that staying here was not an option.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, a few months later, I was requested by dispatch to drive a man home. It was difficult to detect his age, due to his smoker’s complexion and slightly burned-out appearance. This guy was the last of my intoxicated fares so by the time we arrived at his home it was close to 3:00 a.m. When I stopped the cab in front of the house with the porch lights on, I noticed a piece of paper posted to the front door. Next to the door with the handwritten message was stacked a stereo, a briefcase, a few boxes, an ugly lamp, a leather jacket, and a few other possessions. Scattered across the lawn was an array of clothes. My passenger let out a gasp.

“I can’t believe she left my jacket in full view! Someone could have stolen it.”

Of all his possessions this undoubtedly was one of his favourites. He took a couple of minutes to study his state of affairs. “This is unbelievable!”

The now ex-girlfriend found an unmistakable way of making her point. I felt the need to bring the posted message to his attention, as I questioned how cognizant he was with drunkenness now compounded in shock.

“She left you a note,” I said.

He got out of the cab and pulled the paper off the door. He glanced back at me and shrugged.

“How long have you been together?” I couldn’t help but ask loudly.

“Not long,” he paused, “a few months.”

He stood silently, assessing the disaster zone, then took out his cell phone from his pocket. Perhaps he was expecting to get the boot, not knowing exactly how or when it would happen. I waited patiently then, after a couple of minutes, made an arm gesture signaling him over to the cab.

“What are we doing here?” I called to him wanting to get on with my shift.

“Just a sec,” he held up his index finger.

He paced back and forth over the lawn, picking up his clothes while conversing with someone on his cell. “Okay,” he said then hung up.

He walked over to the driver’s window and paid me.

“Are you alright?” I asked.

“Ya,” he answered. “Just like last time, a buddy’s coming over to get me.”

 


DALIA GESSER, a theatre arts/educator and writer, has been running theatre arts programs for children and seniors, since 1998, funded mainly by grants from the Ontario Arts Council. She incorporates storytelling in all her theatre arts programs as everyone has interesting stories to tell. Some of her non-fiction stories have been published in an anthology book series titled ‘Conscious Women’, four in the ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ series and four stories in ‘Kingston Life Magazine’.

Copyright © 2019 by Dalia Gesser. All rights reserved.

 

‘On You’ by Charlie Evans

On You.jpg

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

It was a long drive back from the cottage.

We awoke hungover in an overcrowded cottage by a lake lacking in food, coffee and cigarettes. Most of us were coming down from drugs, apart from me. But I had awoken in a mood, so I was just about as upbeat and pleasant as the rest. You were one of the most upbeat, something I think you were doing for the benefit of me. You were always good at cheering me up, even when I didn’t want it.

Someone had started playing music, beginning with an Ed Sheeran song – one of the more romantic ones. I remember you groaning because it was loud, and it had woken us up much earlier than we desired. I mumbled something incoherent into my pillow and you laughed, pulling me in closer to you and kissing the top of my head. Eventually we were dragged out of bed by your friends, but you whispered to me that you wished we could’ve stayed there together all day.

We all lingered too long, no one awake enough to begin the long drive back to our respective towns. Someone had braved the roads and driven 20 minutes to buy a pack of smokes for us all to share. You gave me two instead of one. A few people ended up in tears before it even reached noon, me being one of them. It was a bad day. You stood with me on the deck and held my hand, kissing me when no one was looking.

We weren’t together, and all night your friends had asked me why. I began to run out of reasons because, in part, we didn’t know ourselves. It had to do with distance and commitment issues and a big hesitance for either of us to acknowledge that it could possibly be something more than just sex. We’d been sleeping together on and off for a long time by that point, but we treated it as if it wasn’t a big deal. Because it wasn’t, we told ourselves. We’d never put a label on it, always keeping it casual because we didn’t want to rush into things and make them fall to ruin.

The night before, as we’d sat around the fire, I had seen your eyes on me. One of your friends couldn’t help but point it out. You blew it off as if it were nothing but gave me a look. A look I knew well at that point: a look meant just for me. The one that kept your words in when you, with your eyes, tried to tell me how you felt.

You made sure we stopped on the drive back, telling your friends that I was a nightmare without coffee—a hard fact. You let me order first at the Walmart McDonald’s, saying I needed it more than you did. I hushed you and told you to order your burger.

At some point during the drive, you reached across the backseat of the car and grabbed my hand, intertwining our fingers and giving me a squeeze. You didn’t let go for at least an hour.

I looked at you and I finally knew. I let myself acknowledge the truth that I’d tried to bury for God knows how long.

I felt it.

That feeling where you realize that the person in front of you is so incredible. The feeling when you know you could sit and listen to the person ramble on for hours and never be bored. When you know that sitting in silence with them is the best thing you’ve known. That they’re everything. All you need, all you want, all you could ever possibly see that point in life.

I didn’t tell you. I couldn’t.

You looked at me when I was staring at you, reached out and touched my cheek. “What?” you whispered.

I shook my head at you. I didn’t know how to find the words. I still don’t.

“Nothing,” I whispered back.

You can always tell when I lie. You leaned across the car and kissed me, a bit deeper than you normally did in front of people. Your two friends in the front seats made a comment, but you kissed me again and then turned back to look out the window, holding my hand the whole way home. I stared out my own window, trying to think of the sky instead of the colour of your eyes.

We dropped me off first, back in Toronto. You got out of the car with me and pulled me into a hug, holding me tight, telling me that you’d see me next weekend for our friend’s wedding. The wedding that I didn’t know then would cause the end of us – even if it turned out to be for the best. The end of everything. The sex, the phone calls, the whispered conversations under the cover of stars, the friendship.

Losing the friendship just about caused me to lose myself. At least for a little while.

But we didn’t know that yet.

All I knew was the feeling I had felt in that back seat, and all you knew? I still don’t know. I may never know. But that’s okay.

Because for one afternoon, one long car ride back from the cottage, I knew.

And you didn’t.

 


CHARLIE EVANS: I am currently in my second year of an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree at Sheridan College in Creative Writing and Publishing. I enjoy writing both creative non-fiction and fiction, typically writing short stories as well as longer pieces. I am looking to begin publishing my work both online and in print in a more official capacity.

Copyright © 2019 by Charlie Evans. All rights reserved.

 

‘The Accident’ by Ilona Martonfi

The Accident.jpg

Illustration by Andres Garzon

“A car hit my little sister,” I said to the nun in my broken English, my siblings and I attended St. Malachy School on Clanranald Avenue.

Halloween night 1955: a Volkswagen Beetle hit nine-year-old Erika on Decarie Boulevard, corner Monkland Avenue. Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough.

One year earlier, we had immigrated to Montreal. War refugees from Budapest, a mother and a father, four daughters and one son. Ages seven to fourteen.

After school, I was scoring orange peels in father’s pastry shop when I saw my seven-year-old brother József. He ran into the store to tell my parents about the accident. I ran outside with father. We found my sister lying unconscious between two parked cars.

Apu, my father, picked up his child. Sobbing, he carried Erika into his shop and laid her down on the bare floor. A Magyar Cukrászda.Scuffed wide plank oak floors, between two glass counters that were filled with chocolates and fresh Hungarian cakes and pastries.

My sister lay with her eyes closed. Father crouched beside her on his knees, calling her name, “Erika. Erika.”

My mother stood by the counter, very still. I prayed the Our Father. The Hail Mary. Repeatedly, I said them. Then Erika threw up. It was dark red. I thought she would die. I prayed louder. To our relief, the red colour was from beets. Sliced cékla my eldest sister Erna had cooked.

On Decarie we rented an apartment across the street from the store. My sister Erna had sent her younger siblings with the alarm clock. “Tell mother to wind it so we will not be late for school.”

The driver of the car, who hit my sister, cried as hard as my father did. “I have four children and no car insurance,”he blurted out between uncontrollable sobs.

Józsefre calls, “Father wanted to cut the guy’s head off when he saw Erika vomiting red. ‘If she dies your head comes off!’he told the driver. She flew through the air and landed on the hood of a car. I was holding her hand. This guy came through the red light. All I remember, she was hit. She was on the wrong side. Both of us should have been hit. It happened in the dark. We all ate beets for supper.”

An ambulance took my sister to the Children’s Hospital. She came home the same night. She suffered a concussion and was dizzy for several days. Erika was allowed to sleep with my parents in their double bed. Missed many weeks of school.

“I don’t celebrate Halloween. Your sister had the accident,” mother said, many years later.

 


ILONA MARTONFI is an editor, poet, curator, advocate and activist. Author of four poetry books, the most recent Salt Bride (Inanna, 2019). Forthcoming, The Tempest (Inanna, 2021). Writes in journals, anthologies, and five chapbooks. Her poem “Dachau on a Rainy Day” was nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize. Artistic director of Visual Arts Centre Reading Series and Argo Bookshop Reading Series. QWF 2010 Community Award.

Copyright © 2019 by Ilona Martonfi. All rights reserved.

‘Ghosts of South London’ by Catherine Watson

South London

Illustration by Andres Garzon

In my grandmother’s garden there was a stunted, knuckled tree near a ramshackle bomb shelter, a sheet of corrugated iron curved over a shallow hole. My grandmother lived in an Edwardian terrace house in a dull London suburb: the house had only four rooms, one front and one back on two floors.  My father was the oldest child and the oldest son – there were three children – and he was the one with the most responsibility and the deepest awareness of how much hope and happiness had been destroyed.  His burden of suffering was part of my childhood: it wasn’t the only way I knew him, but it did form the kernel of my understanding of un-rightable wrong.  Whatever cruelty, violence, fear or disappointment my father had known in his early years lay deep inside him and was never softened or set aside.

As we approached my grandmother’s house, a grimness settled on my father like a deadening blow.  He was someone who could shut off feeling in an instant; when he was really tense or anxious the side of his nose would twitch and the rims of his eyes would turn red.

My mother was scornful of my father’s family. She picked up pieces of family lore and turned them into humourless fun, like calling the house “7GR” – for 7 Guildford Road – which was how my grandfather headed his letters to my father. “7 GR, ugh!” she would say when a visit was planned, and we all knew it would be very unpleasant.  Her reasons were unexplained.

This is the story of what I learned about my father’s family at different ages and what my father’s family meant to me.

 

My father was an internal revenue inspector.  At the height of the Depression he studied by correspondence and sat the open civil service exams.  He passed second in the country, entering the British middle-middle class at a single stroke.  He left school at sixteen and had previously worked as a clerk.  Both my parents were from the same area of London, the northern part of Croydon, but my mother’s family was more stable than my father’s. They helped my father when he was struggling to escape poverty.  My parents married after my father completed two years’ probation with the civil service.

I was born in the spring of 1945, two weeks before the end of World War II in Europe.  (I am now seventy-four.)  I was born outside London as my father worked in Gloucester, about ninety-five miles to the west.  My family traveled up to London periodically to see both sets of grandparents, although I doubt we went often as almost no one had a car.  For me, as a young child, post-war London was an almost mythical land: escalators in the Underground tunneling deep into the earth, bomb sites filled with weeds and rubble, blown-out buildings standing stark against the sky.  In the neighbourhoods where my grandparents lived, houses were older and closer together; they let in less light.

My family moved back into London in 1950, when I was five-and-a-half.  After the move, we also lived in Croydon – in South Croydon, the other side of town.  My first complete memories are from around that time, possibly the year before; I have fragments of memory from a couple of years earlier.  My first memories are still split between those that have colour, movement, cheerfulness (from my everyday life) and those that are darker and stranger (memories of my grandparents, and especially my father’s childhood home).

We continued to visit my grandmother (my father’s mother) almost until she died in 1969.

______________________________________________________

I can recall my grandmother’s house almost exactly.  The front room, called the parlour, was kept for special occasions and I can remember going in there only to look.  There was an upright piano and a short, flat sofa with thin, sausage-shaped arms.  The sofa was upholstered in carpet-like material and the arms were secured at the ends with disks of carved wood.  In front of the window was a table with a large china pot.  The curtains were yellow net, machine-made.

Family visits took place in the back room – was it called the breakfast room?  I can’t remember now what my grandmother called it.  It was there that we sat at a long wooden table and ate bread and butter and small, hard-iced cakes bought at the local corner store.  My brother and I drank what the English call squash, meaning concentrated orangeade diluted with tap water, and the adults drank tea out of stained china cups.  There was a hanging gas lamp over the table lit from a tiny pilot light that flared when you pulled a string.

The kitchen was called the scullery.  This was a sort of annex and had a deep stone sink, a gas stove and a big cylindrical contraption used for laundry called a copper.  The outside lav was reached by a short path through the garden and had a flimsy door made out of wooden slats.

The only running water was in the kitchen.  There was no electric light because no one had had the money to put it in, not grandfather and not the landlord as there was rent control on smaller houses that had been rented for a long time.  My grandmother had lived there since 1915: she stayed partly because of poverty but also because she had an inherited blindness condition, retinitis pigmentosa, and could not live independently anywhere else.  The condition was progressive and, by the time I knew her, she could only distinguish light from dark.  She wore the round, white-framed dark glasses of the blind.

One person is missing from the picture I have of my grandmother’s house – my grandfather.  He didn’t die until I was seven and so must have been present at family teas, but I have no recollection of him there.  I have one clear image of him, probably taken from a photograph: he was stocky and had white hair.  I have another, indistinct memory of the one thick, raised boot he wore.  He had one normal boot, flat to the ground, and another which dragged slightly and made him hobble; this marked him as a veteran of World War I.

The survivors of WWI were still around at that time.  Some sold newspapers on the street.  They were crippled, abandoned men who sat vacantly in parks, resigned and faceless in the weak English sun.

My grandfather’s youngest brother, Uncle Harold, was of this type.  He wore the same boot as my grandfather and occasionally came to tea. My grandfather was more outgoing than my uncle, but his sociability had a disturbing edge.  Once, during a visit to our house, he said to my mother, “You’re looking pasty, Margaret,” and this upset her greatly. There was an aura about him that couldn’t be reconciled: he was neither normal nor abnormal, neither shunned nor accepted as a member of the group.

I don’t think anyone was upset when my grandfather died. Sometime afterwards, my mother told me, “Your grandfather died of prostate cancer,” but I wasn’t sure what that meant.

As a young child, I believed his spirit lived in my grandmother’s bare, wasted garden.  I pictured him living underneath the rough iron roof of the bomb shelter, which I then believed was from his war.  I know now it was from the Second World War, the war my parents lived through and which my older brother had some memories of.  It was an Anderson shelter, assembled at home.

My brother had his own ideas about my grandfather’s last resting place.  After my grandfather died, my brother told me, “Grandpa’s buried under that tree,” meaning the tree in my grandmother’s garden.  My brother is called Robert.  He is almost three years older than I am and can’t have believed himself what he said.  (He would have been at least ten.)  I half-believed it, I think because there was a logic to it:  my grandfather never quite died, not for my parents and not for any of us.

I can’t remember ever seeing that tree in leaf; it was always bare, twisted, like the land you see around the trenches in WWI photos.  I remember Robert said, “If you plant trees upside down they grow with their roots in the air,” and I believed that too.  I knew he was referring specifically to that tree.

When I was eight or nine, I went through a religious phase – we said prayers and sang hymns at school – and I said to my father, “I think we should forgive Grandpa now that he’s dead.”  My mother came and told me my father was very upset I’d said that.  I knew I’d done something wrong.

At the time of our family visits, my father was secure.  He had been working in the civil service for more than a dozen years and had been married to my mother for almost as long.  He had two children of his own, whom he loved.  But I think he was frightened of his father.  My earliest memory of my father, and my first clear memory, is of him coming to pick up Robert and me at another house.  My mother was in the hospital, but coming home, and we’d been sent to stay with another family.  We’d got into some trouble with the other kids, but Robert and I hadn’t been punished because we were guests.  The two of us were waiting at the gate when my father appeared at the top of a slight rise.  I saw him before he saw us, and I remember he looked bereft and alone.  It was as if he’d forgotten all about us, forgotten he had anyone to care for, or who cared about him.  I knew then I was stronger and more self-confident than he was.  I was five.  He was forty-one.

By my late teens, and because I wanted to learn about my own history, I knew most of what I know now about my father’s family. My grandfather was a sergeant in World War I.  He volunteered at the beginning of the war.  He survived but with an untreated shrapnel wound that caused him to spend the year of 1918-19 as a prisoner of war in Russia.  After he got back and got fixed up, he couldn’t get a job anywhere and he didn’t lie down under life’s injustice. He vented his anger on my grandmother and my Aunt Helen, the youngest child and only girl.  He used to say to my father, “I can’t get you, so I’ll take it out on them,” and my father would flee the house.  I heard this from my mother, never from my father.

My father was born in 1909.  He was four years older than his younger brother, seven years older than his sister.  When my grandfather returned to the family, my father was ten, possibly older, making him a more difficult target for my grandfather’s aggression.  This my father understood.  I remember my mother telling me, à propos of nothing very much, “Your father believes he escaped because his father was away in the war.  By the time he came back, your father was big enough to fight back.  That’s why he left him alone.”

My father was the one successful child.  His younger brother worked as a supervisor-mechanic with the Outer London bus service – a steady job but nothing to be proud of in my parents’ view.  My father’s sister, my Aunt Helen, worked as a bank teller until her mid-thirties, when she was admitted for treatment in a psychiatric hospital.  I was six at the time, possibly just seven.  She was hospitalized for eight years and died of a codeine overdose about two years after her discharge.  I don’t think anyone knew if her death was a suicide.  I was sixteen.

My parents connected my aunt’s illness to my grandfather’s abusive treatment of her, but they could never talk openly about what my grandfather had done.  After my aunt died, my mother told me, “Auntie Helen used to sleep on the sofa in the sitting room,” and I knew my mother meant more than she said.  At another time, my mother told me, “Your father found her another place to stay.  She rented a room with another family, at nineteen, once she was working.  But it was too late for her.  She used to eat and eat and eat.”  When my mother spoke about my aunt, she almost always called her “Helen” in a tone of quiet distaste.  It was rarely “your aunt,” never “your father’s sister,” certainly not “my sister-in-law.” My father hardly talked about her at all.

It’s clear to me now that my father authorized my aunt’s hospitalization (although she was a voluntary patient).  After her discharge, my mother told me that my aunt had been arrested for shoplifting and psychiatric treatment was an alternative to being charged in court.  My mother added, “The police came to our door at six in the morning.”  My mother didn’t need to tell me that; I always knew that my aunt had done something irrevocable and bad.

After he retired, my father began to write his autobiography – his early life in fictional form.  He was a good writer and I learnt to write from him, from his letters; I learned to put on paper what was in my mind.  When he was younger, my father had written plays and some short stories, and the theme was always the same:  his uncertain sense of belonging in the middle-class world.  His novel was to be more personal and direct, staying close to his memories of childhood.  My mother typed up the first chapter and sent it to me in Canada.  I was by then married, which for my parents meant that I was a full adult.

The chapter was devastating in its honesty.  It describes how my father and his younger brother used to hang out in a park outside the family home – a place where they knew they would be safe.  The boys talk, they plan, they spot pretty girls, and it was all so unlike my father. My father read books.  He went to work every day in a suit.  He was the decision-maker; his word was usually final, and as far as I knew, he didn’t stray.  But there was something else I didn’t know about him, or hadn’t seen laid out in the clear light of day:  in the consciousness of the main character is an alien presence, a living force which threatens to destroy.

The young man’s father never appears in the novel, and he never acts nor speaks.  But when the young man thinks of returning home, he anticipates a clash over some pointless, nameless issue, and it is then that his father takes on flesh and blood in the young man’s mind.  Only the father knows the reason for the clash and assumes that he is in the right.  Seeing that he must fight, and not knowing why or to what end, the young man starts to shake uncontrollably.  He is humiliated in advance because he knows he is weak.

My father never finished his novel.  My mother said, “It’s therapy for him.”  In the chapter I read the young man calls his father “the old devil.”

Both of my parents died in 1987, my mother six months before my father.  They outlived my grandmother by less than twenty years.  My grandmother died at eighty-nine and lived in the same house until two years before her death.  My parents died in their seventies.

After my mother died, when my father was in the hospital, I stayed alone in my parents’ house.  I found old letters and papers scattered in almost every room. Two of the letters were from my grandmother and my aunt to my father, written following one of my grandfather’s violent attacks.  My father was then married to my mother and living away from home.  The letters were passionate, copious cris de coeur describing headaches, sickness, despair. The two women wrote as if my father was their only hope on earth.  My grandmother’s letter ended with remembrances to my mother, and then, “God bless her sweet face” – in an appeal to a still higher source of help.

There was another letter from my father to my grandmother announcing my birth.  His letter ended, “Here’s dibs for the week,” referring to the weekly money he sent to keep her afloat.

After my father died, I found fragments of his diary, scribbled pencil entries in a hard-cover notebook, written first on scrap paper and then transcribed.  “I had too much responsibility forced on me as a child,” my father wrote, as if his chances for happiness ended there.  Even his handwriting betrays him: cramped, spidery, f’s, h’s and l’s curled in the old-fashioned way, other letters faint and broken, the spaces too large between each word.  It’s the writing of a man who fears judgment at every turn.  My brother’s comment on my father’s private writings was that it was like seeing the other side of the moon.

__________________________________________________________

When my parents left out those old papers, what did they want me to find?  What had they been looking for?  I don’t think they were looking for any sort of justification for themselves or their lives. They wanted to bring back who they had been, what they’d lived for.  They wanted closeness to their past.  Three decades after their deaths, what am I looking for?  I think some sense of how much I am still like them, how far their lives are repeated in mine.

 


CATHERINE WATSON taught sociology for ten years in Montreal and outside Quebec and has worked as a survey interviewer in Montreal.  She has published poetry and prose in Montreal Serai.  She is presently a member of the McGill Community for Lifelong Learning.

Copyright © 2019 by Catherine Watson. All rights reserved.

‘The Fringes’ by Vera Oleynikova

The FringesIllustration by Andres Garzon

 

In 2010, I moved into a place that nobody in their right mind would want to live in—a second-story walk-up in a crumbling building on one of the worst streets in St. Henri. It was an apartment haphazardly cobbled together from odds and ends. Leftovers from other projects became slanted paint-stained floors and grey linoleum panels where a ceiling should have been. This ceiling wasn’t entirely solid. The panels lifted up when poked. The building’s foundation was sinking. Something or someone had chewed at the walls. The people who lived here last must have had pit bulls, like everyone else on the street. My friends politely declined to visit and when I showed them pictures of my new place, they asked me if it was a squat.

“No, I pay rent,” I insisted.

My downstairs neighbours were a young, married Spanish-speaking couple and their newborn son. You could tell they were horrified by their surroundings but were too polite to say anything. Every day I watched the husband set off for English classes in the morning, with a backpack and a plastic coffee mug. He looked determined. The same toughness emitted from his wife’s face as she pushed her baby stroller up and down St. Ferdinand on her own, ignoring the yapping dogs that at any moment could have broken through the flimsy fences.

The wife never integrated with the other new mothers on the street—the ones who asked me to buy them a bottle of rum the first day I moved in. I did and watched from my balcony as they passed the bottle around while their children drew on the sidewalk in pastel chalk.

One day I watched the young couple push a twin mattress out their window. Through the same window, I watched a new queen-sized bed being assembled. They weren’t going to be staying in St. Henri for very long. They had too much aspiration for upward social mobility. You could picture them in the suburbs many years later, comfortably settled; in their backyard, with BBQ burgers and margaritas, regaling their friends and neighbours with the story of their very first mattress in Canada, and other such quirky anecdotes about slumming it on the bottom rung.

It came as no surprise that they left without saying goodbye. A French-Canadian single mother of three moved into their apartment. I don’t remember much about her. Only that I thought she was pretty and one of her children was named Brunette. Her only possession, apart from her clothes and the baby clothes, was a huge flat-screen TV. I know this because she didn’t have curtains.

My neighbours across the hall sold pot and eventually got arrested. Even so, my landlord insisted that the building consisted of “mostly students.” It was flattering that he found me so upstanding as to have to lie like that.

St. Henri doesn’t come to mind when you think of the good things about Montreal. I couldn’t tell you why I loved it there. It had nothing to do with the draw of post-collegiate poverty tourism. I’ve lived in other working-class neighbourhoods. And some sub-working-class neighbourhoods. I’ve lived in buildings with appliances in the front yards, windows that wouldn’t open, doors that stuck, landlords that were never there, neighbours who looked either frightened or frightening; where men in sneakers were always shuffling in and out and passersby looked like they hadn’t known a day of joy in their lives. That wasn’t what I was after. Nor was it the French-Canadian joie de vivre that I was so taken with. Hell, I barely even like Montreal. It’s cold and cruel and unforgiving in a small-town sort of way. Past mistakes hang in the air like a thick fog. In a larger, faster city, the bad air would have long dissipated. Your wrongdoings would be broken up and sent in a dozen different directions by the city’s massive subway system. People would have forgotten because they’d be too busy worrying about what to do with their own dirty laundry. But not in Montreal: where everyone’s so laid back and no-one’s ever too busy to point out that dumb thing you did years ago–where you wear your past like a beehive over your head.

Out of town friends ask whether there is anything there. “Is there a landmark? Something I would notice?” Well, as far as amenities go, there’s a strip club, with a sleazy dive bar adjacent. There’s a Dollarama and a pharmacy, a bank and all of that normal stuff. Maybe there is more than the usual number of futon stores. There’s a farmer’s market near the flossier quarters. More importantly, there are train tracks and memories and overdue library books I still have.

The trains brought with them a special kind of traveller; punk kids that fashioned outfits out of fur and aluminum cans and settled around the Fattal Lofts, which was a microcosm all its own. But I didn’t interact with them much, apart from picking up their empties some mornings to return for small change.

“But what’s it known for?” Factories. Factories that used to make all sorts of stuff and then stopped and now exist as is, like dinosaur carcasses, decaying beautifully. There is something peaceful about that. About being in a place where purposelessness and empty lots still exist.

They call it the working class but I didn’t know too many people who actually worked. Meaning that, in the summertime, you got the sense that somewhere someone was drinking sangria on their porch and you could probably join them if you really wanted to. There was always a sense of adventure. That something might happen. Something fun! You might meet someone who shares your views on stuff!

People kept their doors open; let you peek inside their lives. From the street, you could see tiny, well-loved kitchens or bedrooms with fleur-de-lis flags and TVs they don’t make anymore. I liked that. I liked the way it was slightly cut off from the rest of the world. It felt like living in the fringes. I liked the way the sidewalks were cracked and bumpy and uneven. It was a place where you would occasionally see a dead cat on the street. People hung their laundry outside to dry. Everywhere you looked you’d see evidence of lives being lived.

I lived there for a year. Not nearly enough time to claim it as my own. Maybe I haven’t lived in too many other places. Maybe NOLA is nice and Detroit is nice but I can’t get my shit together enough to get a passport and find out. My mom came from Toronto to help me pack the place up. My very accommodating landlord wasn’t so much concerned with cleaning the place (we both knew this was impossible) as me just getting all the stuff out of there. My mom had a real flair for throwing out my favourite things and packing up just the trash.

“This is no way for a person to live,” she observed sharply.

By the time we were done, there was so much garbage, my curb space alone couldn’t contain it. So, we started putting my trash on other people’s curbs. We snuck a little bit of garbage, just a bag here, a bag there, into everyone’s piles, until the whole street was overflowing with my garbage. My whole life spread out like that.

The next morning the garbage man diligently shoved everything into his truck. Mostly everything; throwing my old couch in with one arm. After he was done, some of the garbage was still strewn about the street. I recognized a mannequin’s leg and a plethora of pizza flyers I was supposed to deliver for a local deli, lining the sidewalks.

I moved back to suburban Toronto to live with my parents. There I was confronted by houses and people and dogs and strangers that all spoke different languages. And roofs that all looked the same. And past that suburb was one just like it, but with a different name. I no longer saw pitbulls. Not that I particularly like pit bulls. I just got used to seeing them. They are a part of the scenery that I have grown accustomed to, like the chirping of birds. In the suburbs, there were no sounds here that I recognized as familiar. The noises that I was used to were gone: the train tracks, the dogs, the elderly French-Canadian couple yelling at one another, the police sirens that made me sit straight up in the middle of the night.

Suburban dogs don’t yap or snap. They wag their tails; they obediently follow their owners. They don’t try to jump over the fences. In the suburbs, people tried very hard to be nice to me, and I tried very hard to be nice back. I made small talk with those people. I smiled and said, “thank you.” I was overly gracious with them because I didn’t care about their dreams.

I am no longer in the fringes because when you live in the fringes, it’s acceptable not to work and to drink rum in the daytime and live off of dollar store chocolate. And what’s more, I heard some kid from Fattal built a fully functioning guillotine. The welding shop on Rosa De Lima takes apprentices sometimes if you were looking for something to do. The graffitied walls of the Death House. In the fringes, I’d walk to the dep to get coffee at 8am and would end up at a bonfire that was still going. The old couple down the block who sat outside their house playing cards and drinking Coronas day in and day out. They’ve been doing this for the last 35 years and will continue to do so until their dying day. For them, the sun rises differently. More happiness is possible.

 


VERA OLEYNIKOVA is a set and costume designer, props master, carpenter and freelance writer currently living in Toronto. Her writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Though Catalog, The McGill Daily, The L Magazine and online music publications.

Copyright © 2019 by Vera Oleynikova. All rights reserved.

‘Fall from Grace’ by RJ Belcourt

Fall from Grace

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

I was raised on a farm just outside a village nestled like a shirt button in a valley on the Canadian Shield. Most of the wage-earners in this Northern Ontario community worked at nearby nickel mines. My childhood was relatively normal until one autumn afternoon in 1972. I was twelve. Forty-five years later, the horror I witnessed that day still haunts me. My mother, who turns ninety this year, likely has no recollection of the event, unaware of the psychological trauma she inflicted. My perception of my sweet, loving Maman has never been the same.

Every Sunday morning, I’d crawl out of bed, put on my best clothes and, unwillingly, accompany my parents to church. My mother adored Mass. Like a newborn suckling breast milk, she eagerly absorbed every word spewing from the priest’s lips.

I recall the floral scent of her perfume—that sweet smell of wild lavender. Looking up at her from the bench, I couldn’t help but admire her. She was so beautiful in her best dress, her painstakingly arranged auburn hair and her ruby red lips. In those moments I couldn’t imagine she was anything but perfect—an angel.

Despite her beauty, time in church seemed to drag on forever. Uncomfortable, confined and bored, I squirmed around, only half sitting on the hard-wooden pew. I fidgeted with the prayer book and played with the kneeler until the inevitable look of scorn my mother glared at me. An omen, a silent warning of decidedly unpleasant consequences to come.

My father, stiff in his good suit, sat next to my mom. He left the disciplining of the children to her and made no effort to bond with any of us. He was a proud, hardworking man who, despite his faults as a father, managed to provide his family with the necessities: food, clothing, shelter. He fought emotional demons his entire life and sought relief from his tormentors in the bottle. He loved spending time with relatives and friends. Unfortunately, as far as he was concerned, any socializing had to include drinking. Alcoholism established a rhythm in our lives, each drunken episode an orchestrated symphony based on a familiar recurring motif.

My father’s periods of drunkenness affected us to varying degrees, and we dealt with them differently. One child reacted with anger, another with compassion, or hatred, resentment, understanding or pity. Mom’s unwavering devotion to my father, and the care with which she helped him through his weeks of binge drinking and the painful withdrawals that followed, were undeniably fueled by her faith in God. The agony my mother endured during those dark periods was reason enough for me to consider her a martyr.

One lazy Saturday morning, all of my impressions of my lovely mother were about to be broken. I was lying on the green shag carpet in the living room, chin in hands raised on my elbows, watching cartoons. I was interrupted by Mom’s voice from the kitchen.

“Raymond, why don’t you turn that thing off and come over to the Larose’s with me?” asked my mother with enthusiasm.

“Aww, Mom. Bugs Bunny is starting. Do I have to?” I whined.

“C’mon, it’ll be fun. We’re making sausage and I could use your help.”

“Can I bring my comics? I have a couple I want to trade with Yvon.”

“Sure, but no trading until after we’re done the work,” she answered.

Mom grabbed a big ceramic bowl, a wooden spoon and a large knife from the kitchen, and out the door we went. We walked up the driveway and the short distance along the highway to the neighbor’s farm. To my surprise, Mom led me past the Larose’s house itself straight to the barn.

Mr. Larose and my father were already at the barn waiting for us. They were leaning against an old plow, chewing the fat—my father with a cigarette in one hand and a ball peen hammer in the other. Mom instructed me to wait outside. Handing me the utensils, she walked into the barn with my father and Mr. Larose.

A few quiet minutes later, I was startled out of my comic by a chorus of high-pitched squeals. Curious, I set the comic down and opened the barn door to find my father and Mr. Larose both in the pig pen. My father was desperately trying to herd a half dozen piglets into a corner, while Larose approached them with his ball peen hammer cocked. My mom, standing at the pen’s gate with her arms flailing, shouted instructions. Larose swung hard, but missed his target, the hammer glancing off the side of a piglet’s head. The poor animal, screeching in pain, scrambled back into the pack. Cursing, Mr. Larose lined himself up for a shot at another piglet. This time the hammerhead landed directly in the middle of the piglet’s forehead. The animal went down as if its legs had been cut from under it and rolled onto its back. My mother ran into the pen of screaming piglets. Grabbing the injured piglet by the back leg, she drug it out of the pen, past me and out the barn door.

“Raymond, come quick,” she hollered. “Fetch me the knife. Bring the bowl and spoon.”

I ran to do her bidding. Kneeling on the ground, she took the piglet by the snout with her left hand and pulled its head up and back, over its shoulders.

“Slide the bowl under the neck,” she commanded. She tightened her grip on the knife with her other hand.

Before I could question what was happening, the sharp blade sliced deep across the pig’s neck. A stream of blood sprayed through the air, staining my jeans bright red. In shock, I stood watching a stream of blood pouring from the animal’s throat into the bowl, aware that the piglet was unconscious, not dead. The pulse of the spewing blood slowed with the rhythm of the piglet’s failing heart.

In disbelief, I stared at the nightmare unfolding before me. My body froze in place, not fully comprehending what my mother just did. I felt lightheaded and my ears began to buzz.

“Raymond?”

“Huh?” I muttered, in a daze.

“Raymond! Take the wooden spoon and stir the blood.”

“What? What are you doing, Maman? Stir the blood? No!”

“Don’t be silly. Quick. Stir it up or it won’t clot evenly,” she explained.

As if in a trance, I followed her orders; kneeling down, I dipped the head of the spoon in the warm blood.

“Why are we doing this, Maman? This is sick—just sick,” I exclaimed. I couldn’t keep my hand from shaking as I stirred the thickening liquid.

“This is how we make sausage,” she answered matter-of-factly.

The flow of blood from the piglet’s throat having slowed to a trickle. She grabbed one of the rear legs and began moving it up and down like a pump handle. The blood gushed with every pump, getting weaker until the bleeding, and the horror, stopped.

The sweet, metallic smell of the blood made saliva rise in the back of my throat and I fought the urge to vomit.

“Sausage? I don’t understand. This is blood.” I choked, gagging.

“Of course. Piglet blood mixed with bits of apples and raisins makes the best black sausage.”

“I think I’m going to be sick. Can I go now?”

“Yes, I can finish up,” answered my mom, laughing to herself.

“I will never, ever eat black sausage again as long as I live.”

Despite all of her church worshipping and care-taking, from that day on Mom was no longer the angel I imagined her to be. God would not—could not—approve of such a disgusting ritual, even if it was for sustenance. What I witnessed was nothing less than barbaric and evil.

The following day I attended Sunday mass with her as always, but on that occasion, I took a moment from my distractions to ask God to forgive my mom for the black sausage massacre and to save her soul. I hope, for her sake, He was listening.

 


RJ BELCOURT‘s discerning eye for landscapes and natural forms most likely grew out of his love of nature, which developed at an early age. In 2008, he collaborated in the publication of a small book of Haiku poems and photos entitled “Haiga Moments.” His photos were featured in the book and received positive reviews from both Daily Haikuand Book Review. Ray collaborated with a number of provincial artists on a project that combined mixed media art featuring landscapes from across Canada. A book of the paintings was released in 2012 and now is being re-released with a few added pages in conjunction with the publishing of the art featured in Our Canada magazine Dec/Jan 2019 Issue. Ray is now pursuing writing and publishing short stories as well as his first full length novel, “Blood Cove.”

Copyright © 2019 by RJ Belcourt. All rights reserved.

‘Empath’ by Brian Michael Barbeito

Empath

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

They killed the boy. Not a they, but a single person. ‘They’ is something people say but they mean one person. But words don’t matter.

I know right from looking at the poster of the missing boy that they killed him. The poster is frayed at the sides from the wind and salt air. It’s white. We are at the pier. There are staples along every side of the poster. Old papers have been taken down or lost. I look at the grain of the wood, they look like railway ties. But I don’t know what they are. They are posts. There is a post on the post. We have no money to get on the pier. There is a charge. I think we have lots of money, somewhere, much more money than the average person but maybe not as much as a millionaire. Maybe as much as a millionaire. Yes. Or close to that, but we have no money in the moment. We are in shorts and t-shirts. We didn’t know there was a charge to get on the pier. I won’t die. I fell in the water during the night and got taken out to sea and almost died, but they grabbed me and I lived. That was a long time before. Recently a man, perhaps someone like the one who killed the boy, asked me where I lived. This guy has a wife and two kids playing there. He is what they call clean cut, but he is dark.I lied and told him I lived ‘over there,’ and pointed to a different direction. He knew that I knew he was evil, a bad man, and he smirked and said that, “Oh, I don’t think you live over there, I think you live right there,” and he pointed to where I actually lived. There are many bad people around. Many people who smirk are bad. Not all, but many. I look out to the sea. We head back home along the beach because we brought no money with us. It is a long walk. But a nice one. I feel bad for the boy. He is about my age.

Zenith wants to kiss. She lives in a strange place and smokes cigarettes outside in a chair. She and her friend followed us out of a local supermarket once, and she called us over. I never met anyone that young who smokes. Secondly, I can’t figure out how her parents let her smoke. I don’t ask about it. I actually don’t talk much. But there was a boy on the other pier, and he was fishing and you could see that there were a lot of fish to be caught in this one area. I knew the lines were going to get tangled. This kid was alone. He was native to the area, a white guy with the sandy hair and a permanent tan. He smoked. And he smoked alone, so he wasn’t smoking to show off in front of his friends. The lines got tangled. He said, “I am starting to get pissed. I am starting to get pissed.” He kept saying this. I didn’t like him. He was too old for his age. He didn’t have a good aura but he is not a killer or something like that. He is just a bit of a selfish person. The lines become untangled and we are free of him. He can do what he wants. I kind of like the place and kind of want to get outta there at the same time. I like the night. I don’t always like the people. I can sense who they are: many good, some bad, some very bad. Zenith’s mouth tastes like cigarettes. She is not a very good kisser either. I don’t tell her that. She is beautiful and she is strange. I am strange and I find her strange. So, she must really be strange. We sit in a lot near the fire department on curbings so white they seem to shine in the night. The fire department is in the middle of all the motels. But I guess right there that they have to put the fire department somewhere.

It is morning. There are hurricane shutters on the windows, but they are open, unused. The sun comes in from somewhere over or beyond the Atlantic Ocean. The blimp goes past in the sky but not till a bit later. I forget where I am but then when I realize I am in my room it is like heaven. There will be a lot of trouble in the future. There is not a way that heaven can be much better. Even if it is, I would just as sure stay there in the room. I have my clothing and my homework because I keep going away from school for weeks and they assign me work: Do this chapter, answer questions 3 through 12 on this date, read this chapter on this date and answer only questions 3, 7, and 10. I never did any of it. I never opened a book. I never felt I was from earth in the first place and I definitely was not going to do their work. I was like a visitor. I can see the ships, a couple walking. There are the sounds of footsteps—you know this, you know this and how it is—most people do at some point; the smell of the suntan lotion and the sound continual and calming of the motor from the pool filter. A lizard somewhere on a screen or wall and the light and sun infiltrates all things well.

Sun.

But not for the boy.

Not anymore.

Sometimes my insides ache and it’s like either an otherworldly pain or a very worldly pain. I am not sure which. I go out then and swim in the sea. I have to pass metal railings and green stairways first. That sun is on everything. The sea is full of sand, coral, seaweed. I stand on the shore then sit down. The world becomes full of light but it’s not the light from the sky. It’s another type of light. I know this somehow. And besides, it happens at night. Night is not scary. It is holy. Day is also. Day and night are both good when there is light.

Darkness took the boy.

I go back to the pool. There is a man. He is a good man and he is an old man. He has a British accent. He is talkative. He keeps jumping off the diving board. Though I can swim well, I stay near the shallow end. He is thinking out loud but using me as an excuse to talk. This is what people do around me. I am blank. The most I can figure is two things—that he feels guilty for being there for some reason, and that he must have had a lot of friends or family in his life that were racist. He is fighting against that somehow. He keeps saying, “This here what you got going on is not a normal life. This is a millionaire’s life; this is how a millionaire must live. This is only how a millionaire spends his day.” He must not be a millionaire because he is obsessed with millionaires. Then he says, “If someone enjoys the day with their friend, and the friend is not white but maybe black, then people say, “Why you going along with that guy,” and in the right world you would say to them, “Too bad. He’s my friend and I don’t care and it doesn’t matter and we are friends and that’s it!”’ I just nod. I don’t know anything about it one way or the other. He has a feeling of what it would be like to be rich and to live also in a fair world. Then he disappears, not magically. Just finished his swim, going somewhere out to the beach or into the apartments. I don’t know which.

I am going to find Jimmi. He always used to be game for anything. He was the best at catching lizards and could spot them from far away. He said that some kids from a rival group of skateboarders threw his skateboard into highway traffic. I never knew if this was a story because everything he said was like that. Then, I supposed it could be true. Jimmi and I used to roam around, sometimes with Randi. Jimmi asked me once, right out loud, “Why do you go around with him?” and I just knew, the way you know some things. Randi was a fat kid in Jimmi’s eyes and slower plus uncool. I knocked on Jimmi’s door and his mother opened it. She looked at me and said, “Jimmi don’t live here no more.” My mother used to tell me that the men on the balcony on the top floor of Jimmi’s building were waiting for drugs to wash in from the ocean. She always said, “Look at those men, three men staring all day out to the sea with binoculars. And day in and day out. No way, no way that’s normal. What they are doing is waiting for a large shipment of drugs that was dumped from a boat and is supposed to wash up somewhere near here. When they see it, they will rush down.”I made my way back to the building and found myself in the front lobby because it was spacious and comfortable with long leather couches.

There is an older girl. Her name is Becky. She is about 15. She is talking to her friends. I am just someone’s kid brother or a boy, am practically invisible. She is energetic. We are all in the lobby. She looks older than her age and always has some story to tell. She is explaining to everyone something as I look out the window at green palm trees and the black cement and blue sky. “…and we try to come back in here from the road, and they said come in the car with us, get in the car, we’ll go for a drive…and I say no way, fuck that, I ain’t getting in a car with you, and I didn’t get in the car and they just sit there watching and we came up in here so I ain’t even going out there tonight . . .” And I look back at her and think she is okay—daring, sometimes up to trouble, but will be okay—she has a sense. Street smarts, as they call it.

It’s the boy who is not okay. And they are not talking about him, as in books and stores and movies. People are concerned with themselves, with their own day. But the boy could not protect himself. I know that the boy was good, better than good, and should not have been taken, though nobody should be taken. I try and take a deep breath. We have to go to church. The priest has a voice that is so slow and bored I wonder how he doesn’t fall over. But there is something about the benches and the light from the windows. I just stare around and soon can’t hear anything. There is an abandoned porch or something out there, by the wild trees whose names I don’t know. Later, Zenith will stand there with me. She says, “Does it bother you that I smoke?” No,” I lie, but it’s not exactly a lie. It’s cool overall. I don’t know. Her friend comes, a girl from England. Something is bothering Zenith but I don’t know what and will never know. They say goodbye and walk off, in a good way. I never see any of them again. Nothing bad happened, we just went separate ways.

I go back down the street and follow the grasses. There is no sidewalk and the walking is slightly dangerous, but people walk there anyway. One lady appears in the middle of the street, well dressed and either drugged or drunk. The cars stop to help and a man gets angry. “This is not a game!” he screams. He keeps calling out. What the hell does he want them to do, I wonder, let her get killed? I think to myself then the world is sunny but it is also a bad place. Then when some women try to calm and direct and help her, she gives them the middle finger, which makes everything about the world more complicated. I leave and go down to the sea, cutting across the restaurant parking lot. I am isolated but know I will be safe there and secure. I watch my favorite things, which have little or nothing to do with what the others like. I watch the curbs, white and shining, and the lights from the restaurant, how they are positioned just so. The trees they have planted have green palm leaves and, in the nights, lights shine on the trunks. It’s better than anything.

But I know the boy is dead.

Somehow, I head back to the gates that enter the pool area. There are old men coming back from swimming; towels, light conversations, easiness, no problem.

Later we are near the pier but in stores. The sun is bright. T-shirts with iron-on prints are popular. The smell of the store is beautiful—something about the fresh shirts, the ironing machine on nylon or cotton or whatever it is. I stand near a stucco wall and there is a teenager, a group, near a pickup truck parked where there is no parking allowed, practically in the doorway of a store, and the truck has a sticker that reads, “If it’s tourist season, why can’t we kill them?” These are rough people: shirtless, tanned boys, and girls in bathing suits. The leader puts his hand on one of the girl’s shoulders and says, “You left the party without saying goodbye last night.” She doesn’t answer. She looks down at the ground. I walk away, enter the t-shirt store. I look through the book of iron-on prints: surfboards, the sea, the sun, musical bands, sayings, all kinds of things. Then I see the one I want, a skull with snakes and flowers all around it. It should go on a black shirt, I think, but my mother reads my mind. Not really–not like I can sometimes read minds, but probably because I have stopped the page there.

She freaks. “You are NOT getting that. You are NOT wearing that. I am NOT buying that. If you think you wearing a shirt with a skull and snakes you can think again –NOT a chance.” I don’t say anything. I pick out something with an ocean and a sun and they make up the shirt and she pays and we leave and I am happy enough. There is a dive shop and I am obsessed with how the watches look. There is a red marker on all diver watches that is from the zero to twenty-minute mark. I watch the mechanical bridge go up. It leads to the intercoastal waterway. The sun is shining again, so brightly, upon everything. I wanted the shirt with the skulls. We walk into the day and disappear into the other stores and then the streets and the larger world, and my gift grows but it’s a good thing because the world is, although pretty, often also pretty bad. I am okay, but I am also restless. They find the boy soon. He was taken and killed. Someone took the posters at the pier down shortly after that.

 


BRIAN MICHAEL BARBEITO is a Canadian nature poet and landscape photographer. He is the author of Chalk Lines (Fowl Pox Press, 2013).

Copyright © 2019 by Brian Michael Barbeito. All rights reserved.

‘Creatures of a Moment’ by Samantha Thayer

Jarred

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

On Wednesday, I watched her steal a daylily from my garden. On the following Sunday, she chose an orchid.

At first I thought she had mistaken them for hers. After all, our neighboring gardens nearly overlapped. It was on Thursday, I watched as her despairing gaze visited my home. Then, when she failed to see me hiding behind the curtain, she reached over and plucked a tulip.

I respected that she was so careful—as though the flowers were built of shattered glass and she was afraid of cutting herself. She always chose specific flowers. Perfect specimens, regarding every petal. Her visits were infrequent enough to never affect the garden’s growth, as it still flourished with over a dozen breeds of flower.

The reason behind her thievery was a mystery to me. Although she had been my neighbor for years, she hid beneath a dark baseball cap as though she was ashamed to look at the world. But she was not fearful. No, she stood tall and proud. One could gain a moment of confidence just by watching her.

Her name was Ava. That was all I truly knew about her. I had made idle attempts to get to know her, but small talk could only get me as far as knowing that tomorrow might be a little cloudy. Her confidence made her challenging to face. I could never find the guts to press a conversation, let alone a confrontation. Truthfully, I hadn’t thought much about her until she started stealing from me. Before then, I was only aware that she didn’t appear to like other people much. So, I left her alone.

Perhaps I should have confronted her on the first day I caught her stealing. Something had prevented me, however, from swinging open the window and demanding to know why she didn’t take from her own garden. Part of me wanted to see where she went with it, the other half was focused on how depressed she appeared as she buried the flower in her palm. I couldn’t build up the courage to interrupt that, not until Monday came.

In the early hours of that morning, I caught her once more, delicately pulling up one of my flowers, which would now only have hours left before it wilted away. They only existed for a moment in time, after all.

Opening the window felt wrong, but I did it anyways, if only to let in a carefree breeze that swept by me and raced eagerly into my home. I did not welcome it. I was already too focused on the girl in my garden, just as she was focused on me

“Excuse me, but . . . just . . .”

Talking was hard. It was always hard. Fighting my tongue to allow the worlds to roll off, rather than cram them back down my throat, was a constant battle. I suddenly wanted to shut the window in hopes that I could shut out that gnawing anxiety. She was stealing and yet I was worried I had interrupted her.

“What are you doing?” My question fumbled out at last, but the breeze was no longer there to carry the vibrations of my quivering voice atop its vigorous waves. Instead, my words dropped to her, placing a visibly heavy weight on her shoulders.

“I’m sorry.” Unlike myself, she did not hesitate. She paused for only a moment and, in that brief passage of time, I watched her collect herself before she straightened to look me dead in the eyes. “I know what I’m doing is wrong,” she said with the same despairing look she had on Sunday, “But I need this.”

It was hardly an answer, barely the distant cousin of an explanation. I watched her focus on the flower. “What do you do with them?” I asked, borrowing enough confidence to lean slightly out of the window.

“I give them to someone.” The vagueness covered her intentions like a widow’s veil.

“To who?” I asked. “Why can’t you bring your own?”

“It’s not that easy to explain,” she responded.

“Then can you show me?”

I hadn’t expected she would crack, let alone cave. Strange as it was with our usual reluctance to share words, I was frantic that come Friday, there would be more than just a flower missing from my garden.

But somehow—miraculously—an agreement was made and I found myself walking side by side with mystery. There was no connection between us other than our overlapping gardens and stolen flowers. Though, that was enough to lead me away from home on a short leash of curiosity.

Of all the places I could have imagined she would bring me, a graveyard was the last of them.

We entered through its gates, the fences’ sword tips stretching towards the late August skies. I wanted to tell her to turn around. I wanted to tell her that everything was okay. She didn’t need to show me so much. She didn’t need to show me where the flowers went after all. Hell, if she wanted to, she could leave me right at those gates and, come Saturday, I could turn a blind eye when her hand trespassed onto my property to snatch away a rose. But I didn’t say anything; instead, I swallowed my words.

When we came to a little gravestone that had the name “Sebastian” carved into its concrete flesh, I lost all my borrowed confidence.

“He loved your flowers.” As she spoke, she lowered the carnation onto the head of the grave where it would eventually fade away. “We always told him to take the flowers from our garden if he wanted them… but when we weren’t looking he would just reach over to yours and . . . ”

The wind caught her words, sweeping them away as easily as a stolen daisy, leaving us both in silence. The momentary inability to speak was cruel, but I understood it all too well.

“He was your brother.” I remembered him. A head of messy brown hair and a wild smile that lasted even through the vicious effects of chemotherapy.

“He never kept the flowers, he just gave them to people.” Her expression was haunting, as though her eyes saw the past while her body lived in a tormentous present, fearful of her future. “They made him happy, so I guess he thought they would make others happy too.”

I had asked where the flowers went, but I hadn’t anticipated they would be only one of many in a cemetery of roses. A dying garden.

More often than not, I think about that visit. Though the world may have continued to spin around in its usual pattern with merciless ignorance, everything changed for me. I began to sleep with my body curled into a fist of protest. The fleeting memory of a lively smile on a dying body became the centerpiece of my dreams.

Now, every few weeks, I meet with a girl who hides beneath a dark baseball cap to plant a variety of flowers, in our overlapping gardens. Then, on scattered days of the month, I wave to her from the window as she passes by.

Then, on Tuesday, I watched her borrow a daffodil.

 


SAMANTHA THAYER is a creative writer studying both English Literature and Interior Design in Montreal. She was born and raised in a small town that has inspired many of her creative works. When she is not pursuing creative endeavors, she is working in professional pet care or furthering her education.

Copyright © 2019 by Samantha Thayer. All rights reserved.