‘God is so hot right now’ and ‘More and Other’ by Osher Lee

God is so hot right now

At the oofroof I wrap tefillin and,
cloaked cozy in my bar mitzvah tallis,
am asked to perform the coveted honour
of hagba, raising the Torah above my head,
spread wide and naked, for all to see.

7:30 in the morning, at a shul far from home,
I wrap straps of leather around my head,
around my bicep, arm, hand, and fingers,
making sure they are tight enough
to leave a mark (even now, hours later).

With the phylacteries draped and hanging,
I mustn’t have impure thoughts. Though I do:
memories of being a teen, joining the other boys
in the early morning concentration, taking off half
a shirt to wrap and be wrapped in leather.

I centre myself by folding a prayer shawl
around my shoulders, bringing together
the knots and strings that fringe its four corners.
The fabrics are redolent of my own history,
And even the shmata factories of our past.

My brother and his wife-to-be ask me
to serve the difficult but sought-after role
of raising the holy scrolls of the old testament
to the heavens, opening it for the congregation
to see, to sing to, to bless, to be blessed.

In the anointed room of lights and memoriam,
of stained glass and old men, I wrap leather
around my skin, pressing and ripping into me,
into my forehead, my forearm, my frame,
my muscles, my flesh, my memories.

I wrap cotton around my torso,
pulling corners over shoulders,
feeling edges on my neck.
Breathing deeply through my nose,
I remember who I was and am.

I grip the scrolls of animal skin
and—like a lever—I pull down to lift up
the wisdom, heavier than expected,
the words of past and present, and
perhaps the future. I wonder.

At the oofroof I wrap myself in tefillin,
I wrap myself in my tallis,
I wrap myself in memories,
I wrap myself in family,
and I raise the words for everyone to see.

 


 

More and Other 

The less we interact with our senses,
The more we are barred from the present,
The more we are living in pasts and futures,
Which can’t exist beyond our heads.

So lips, please go on feeling,
Tongue, please don’t stop tasting,
Smells, please keep remembering,
And hands, please hold some hands.

 


OSHER LEE is a high school teacher turned graduate student living in Montreal. He studies the way the internet impacts young people, their learning, and the environment. Lately, his favourite poets include Leanne Simpson, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Billy-Ray Belcourt, and Maggie Nelson.

Copyright © 2019 by Osher Lee. All rights reserved.

‘On the Run’ by Judy Fischer

Dec Entires
Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

Exerpt From: Chronicles of a Young Immigrant Girl
Chapter One — On the Run by Judy Fischer

Budapest, Hungary 1956

It was toward the end of September 1956 when the leaves from all the inner-city trees had already fallen. The dead, brown foliage lay thick and heavy on the sidewalks of my home town. Those sweet smells of summer and the feeling of hope that accompanies the happiest season of the year was slowly coming to an end as the autumn of that particular year made its ugly appearance. It was showing signs of a more ominous and frightful season than those previously. A hint of terror hovered over the entire country of Hungary.

There was a cold nip in the air awaiting us as our tiny airplane landed at the local airport following a month-long trip to my father’s childhood home. The summer vacation to Bulgaria was my first trip abroad, and although at six I was indifferent to its significance, I did enjoy the trappings linked to the fun and excitement. Whether our trip was the result of something my father foresaw and feared, or a well-deserved vacation, I will never know. Too young to have recognized the political atmosphere of the time, the trip was just a magnificent adventure for me. My father was a man in his fifties who had out-lived many tragedies in his life. Having survived World War One by fleeing his birth country, and adopting a new language and culture in Bulgaria, my father must have known there was something terrible brewing in the wind. A longing to visit his parents’ graves possibly for the last time was his main reason for going. Arriving there was very rewarding, but returning home proved to be perilous.

School started before I came home. Though my first day of school should have been memorable, it was not. The grade one class had made their first day of school memories and friendships without me, and I arrived at their doorstep a stranger. The one month I remained in school was as traumatic as the month that followed. On October 23rd, a caravan of Russian tanks stormed into Budapest following a civil uprising and all hell broke loose. To squelch the revolutionary sentiments forming strongly in the hearts of many, foreign soldiers in full uniform arrived. Soon, chaos and fighting became an everyday reality. At the age of six, I knew little and understood even less, about war. The fear and terror written on the faces of my neighbors and strangers on the street was, however, the harsh lesson I soon learned.

After the invasion, the city became a war zone. My mother made an honest effort to keep me safe and to protect me from the harsh truth, yet she decided to take our afternoon walk, even though something ominous was happening in the streets of Budapest. She dressed me in a warm fall jacket, but without a hat to cover my blond curls. Even those fall garments could not protect me from the things I was about to see. While the cold was not the threat, the scene outside was. I was only six years old. Young children should only see the wonderful side of life, not the atrocities of war. Nonetheless, we walked through the crowds. There were people everywhere. Horrified, they staggered from place to place. But it was just another day for me, walking hand in hand with my mother. Around me, an era had just come to an end. People were running through the streets. Some were screaming, some were just making awful sounds, and others were staring up toward the sky. In the park, naked bodies swung from gigantic trees. They were on display for everyone to see. I couldn’t understand what was happening, and my mother’s answer was enough at the time. She told me that the men were being punished for the bad things they had done. That they were being displayed as examples to warn those who were thinking of doing the same bad things. I did not question it. She begged me not to look up. But how could I not? My young eyes had never witnessed such horrific sights. How was I supposed to make any sense of them? As we walked, there was a soft cushion under our feet. It wasn’t like the hard cement sidewalks that I recalled from our past walks. Upon a closer look we could see faded, muddy and shredded garments. But it was not the garments providing the cushion. It was the dead bodies of the people who wore them. There was an odor in the air, something heavy and indicative of blood and death.

The following day, as we sat in our kitchen, the sounds of bullets echoed through the streets nearby and the sound was coming closer. They bounced off the walls under of our own kitchen window without warning. My parents grabbed me by the hand and hustled all of us downstairs to the bomb shelter. We ran with the other tenants to save ourselves. We huddled close together for safety, and to find a little comfort. No one really felt safe after those first weeks of the uprising while the Revolution of October 23 kept raging on. My parents quietly plotted our escape. I was too young to be included in the preparations.

My mother gave me a bag, and instructed me to fill it with a day’s worth of clothing and one of my favorite dolls. I wanted to take many more, but there was no more room in it. On November 20, almost one month since the beginning of the revolt, we left the comforts of our home with a small suitcase each by our side. It was my 7th birthday. I was abandoning my childhood, my innocence, my cousins, all my dolls and my favorite toys. But I had no inclination of what was happening around me. The disruption in my life was disturbing, yet through the eyes of a child, reality was tempered. The adults made all the necessary plans, children obeyed and followed. There was a definite advantage to being young and naive. To prevent a disaster, I was told we were going to visit my grandmother who lived in a neighbouring town. I used to go there often, but never by train. I was joyful about our unexpected trip. It was my birthday after all, so going to celebrate with my grandmother was not unthinkable.

The train station was jam-packed. It was noisy, and people were pushy. Hysteria. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry. I was just happy to be visiting my grandmother, and was telling anybody who stopped and listened to me. But they laughed at me. The train was not going to take me to my grandmother. It was taking me to a new life far away.

The train ride was quite uneventful. It was quiet and somber. Fear was written on the faces of each passenger. Unable to move, we all sat crammed together. The oxygen got thinner with each kilometer the train moved, and a few passengers fainted in the aisles. When the train finally stopped, the scene changed. People yelled as they climbed out by the windows unto the platform. People were acting like caged animals trying to set themselves free. The aisles remained crowded, and sweat dripped from everybody. My innocence was now stolen, and the hope of sharing my birthday with my grandmother had vanished. I could not ignore the fear in my mother’s eyes. I started to cry.

The border between Hungary and Austria was unarmed, and the border guards had abandoned their posts. The message as suggested by the news reports encouraged more and more people to seek asylum outside of Hungary. There was an urgency to get to the border before it would again be closed.  It was accessible, but far away from where the train could go. The rest of our journey had to be continued by foot, and in the dark of the night.

I turned seven. I was a cry-baby and complained from the minute we started on foot. It must have been terrible to travel such a dangerous journey with a young child. I complained about the blisters on my feet, about my hunger pains and about my fatigue. My father had sadness and uncertainty in his eyes and voice. We did not rest very often. There was no time to delay, for there was an urgency in every step that brought us closer to freedom. I remember taking refuge in a farmer’s house. We were there given hot food and the adults were treated to strong homemade brandy to calm their nerves. These good Samaritans opened their homes to all those needing some comfort and warmth. The quest for a better life became a monumental challenge my parents had not foreseen.

Our trek toward the border was also interrupted by one very frightening incident. On the road we walked on during the day, the anti-revolutionary movement had a pickup route. They travelled back and forth picking up stragglers, and collecting and depositing them into makeshift prisons. Nobody was legally allowed to leave the country. The trucks they were using were cruising the area at the same time we were on our last few kilometers. The anticipation of being caught made the journey more terrifying. We had joined up with a group of others who were also finding their way to the border. The group of travellers, made up of young adults, were compassionate, but travelling with a crying and complaining child tested their patience.  My father insisted that we stay at the end of the line. As we walked, a young man on a motorcycle pulled up beside us. He was heading in the same direction, and kindly volunteered to take me on his motorbike. He offered to deliver me to a milestone further up the road.  Without hesitation, my father agreed. Seeing I was having a difficult time keeping up, this was a very good opportunity. But the decision he made to keep me from crying and to make better progress on this last stretch of the road nearly separated us from each other. It could have been forever.

My ride up the road was memorable. I can still remember the cold breeze blowing my hat off my head, but the pain from my blisters was gone. I was focused on holding onto my escort with both arms, so looking back was impossible. My parents were too far behind. I felt strange without the security of my mother’s hand holding mine.  But sitting without pain was a welcome relief that outweighed the loss. We arrived at the checkpoint where we had agreed to reunite. The young man and I sat on the cold, damp grassy shoulder. Suddenly, the sound of a truck roaring in the distance brought my companion to his feet as he pushed me under a nearby bush. The engine’s thunderous echo came from the same direction as my parents. As it approached, my young escort seemed more agitated and motioned at me, signalling that I should remain in hiding and silent. The truck came closer and closer to where we were waiting. As it passed us by, I could see it was full of people standing close together. There were so many, there was no room for even one more person. My escort gazed quickly at the truck, and looked very worried. Then in the far distance, we saw the group of people I had been walking with, and I saw my mother and father leading them. Their faces of relief were obvious as they ran toward me. We were reunited. I didn’t know what all the fuss had been about. We were together and hopefully, I thought, never to be separated again. Little did I know that it was by sheer luck and good fortune that neither my parents, nor I became passengers on that prison-bound truck.

 


JUDY FISCHER is a Montrealer by love and choice. She is the author of He Fell From the Sky and Missy Loves René, two books published in the last two years.

Copyright © 2019 by Judy Fischer. All rights reserved.

‘Adam’s Eve’ by Michael Vincent Moore

Adams Eve

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

Adam, in a horrid state, rouses himself up and searches about, no one to be seen. He stumbles up from the patch of leaves he is laying on. Adam wanders, nude, distraught, seeking. He catches a glimpse of Eve in the distance, stretched out in the shaded grass next to a pond, equally nude. He joins with her. As Adam approaches, Eve looks up at him, and observes his discomfited nature. Before she can formulate a word, he attempts to untangle his disjointed thoughts.

“Eve, I, you.”

Eve, incapable of grasping Adam’s swollen and despairing countenance, nor of embodying his inner turmoil, barely glances at him before returning to her peaceful rest.

Adam, desperate to impress upon Eve the horrific images he has just perceived, proceeds with much effort to render in words his tumultuous tale. “You could not believe what I have just beheld; a dreadful event is poised to burst after us. Such horror, such hopelessness, beyond apprehension.” He lets himself fall next to her, in abject wretchedness.

Eve turns back to him, astounded. “What? Horror, here?”

“No, it was not within this space that I saw it.”

Eve, lost in thought, ponders his words for a moment, then focuses back on Adam, curious. “But we have never been anywhere else.”

Adam fixes his gaze to the crystalline reflections of the star’s rays upon the pond as he endeavours to understand this event. “I was here, then I slumbered, then I was there, and then I was here again.”

Eve raises to her side and leans on Adam’s knee, as the mystery of his experience captures more of her faculties. “Adam, are you implying that he brought you to another place?”

“I am not certain where I was, but it was not here that I conjured these things, this I know.”

“What things?”

“The most horrible things: Agony, decay, pollution, craving, sordid creations. So many people living in fear, living in torment of the worst sort.”

Eve caresses Adam’s flowing hair, attempting to assuage his ill feelings. “I still do not understand. What horrible place do you speak of?”

“It was called Earth, and its history was conferred to my existence in an unending succession of ghastly images. Part of me was there. Part of me endured all of it with them, through them.” He pauses, sorely recollecting those sensations. “A whole world. Inhabitants born, living short suffered lives. Inhabitants who then died of disease, lost hope, regret, hunger. Even murder!”

Eve freezes, her hand still intertwined in Adam’s hair. Her eyes widen. “Murder?”

“Yes, murder, and so much worse still.”

Adam looks at Eve earnestly, trying to gauge her level of discernment, of how far he should delve into the reality of what he has seen without compromising her innocence, her amity.

“Things worse than murder? How could such a place even exist?”

She resumes caressing his hair. Adam further contemplates Eve’s well-being and chooses to discontinue the elaborations of his descriptions.

“I have perceived things that I ought not repeat to you. I have seen what it is that some of these people have done to one another.” He temporarily interrupts his discourse, the painful images coming back to him in the moment. “It is so hideous that it induces a magnitude of displeasure to my being. Billions of people, struggling, over and over again. Life and death. No respite, no end.”

“My dear Adam, even though I am familiar with all these words you speak of, I am at a loss to comprehend the consequence of them, or to sympathize in any way.” As Eve speaks to Adam, she gently slides her hand over his arm in  tender affection.

“Be grateful of that,” Adam replies. “For I have felt their anguish, and I would spare you of it at any expenditure.”

“Was it all so evil? Was there not any redeeming attributes to this place you have sojourned to?”

“Some, but all far eclipsed by the governing perversity to which the beauty could be measured in drops, but the suffering, in oceans.” Adam shakes his head in a dejected manner.

“How can he have brought you there, and why?”

He contemplates Eve’s query, and a faint impression springs forth to him. “It was for a purpose, and,” Adam, arrested in mid-account, his eyes fixed to the ground, becomes exceedingly faint. “Oh, I saw how this place came to be.”

“How it came to be?”

A flash of horror thunders through his mind, and a subsequent expression of great heartache ripples across his facial features, distorting them to an almost unrecognizable form. Eve recoils in fright.

“It, it was because of us. We were responsible.”

Of a sudden, Adam obediently bows his head and shamefully shadows his appearance nether the veil of his consentient palms.

On hearing of Adam’s self-recriminations, of them being at the origin of this harrowing other-worldly disturbance, Eve overcomes her momentary displeasure to Adam’s harsh judgment. She becomes defensive and asks: “How could we be responsible for such a place?”

Adam is despondent and Eve pulls at his hands. At his grief-stricken expression, she grows concerned. “Adam, speak to me!”

Adam takes a few moments to constitute himself, and hesitantly proceeds with the account. “It was that which you were attempting to prevail over me. Us. Our parts, joining together.”

Eve wrenches herself away from Adam in consternation. “How can that have anything to do with this place you called Earth, where you witnessed countless people suffering so dreadfully?”

“I do not know, but he admonished us not to do certain things. He said that there would be grave repercussions.”

Eve cannot come to terms with this inference, this connection that Adam is implying, particularly not through any fault or influence of her own. “But how can there be such grave repercussions for anything we do here? This place is so idyllic?”

“Again, I do not know. But his essence left me somehow within that moment. I experienced darkness, loss of harmony, and we became them,  all of it was created from us.” Adam trembles as he unsuccessfully attempts to dislodge those impressions from his knowing. “Please do not try to persuade me again, do not even refer to it any longer!”

Having difficulty facing Eve and her insistence in the matter despite an admonition of this horrifying outcome, Adam turns aside in dismay.

Eve still contests Adam’s resolve. “But, Adam, I yearn for it in a way I cannot explain.”

Delicately resting her head on his shoulder, Eve proffers an embrace.

“Eve, I beg you. After what I have been through, I would as soon tear it off and burn it to ashes before I would even attempt such a thing with it, the consequences are far too important, just because of this, union, you yearn for.”

“Adam, do not be so hurried to settle your judgment. Please, consider my feelings further.” Through the sensations they are communing by their corporeal link, Eve feels Adam draw back. She reasserts her longing by keeping to him in a more coercive clench.

“No Eve, my word is final. There is nothing additional that you can do or say to convince me otherwise. I am going to Father now, to impart to him what I have witnessed. I will make him aware that he can rest assured, never will I be betrayed to go against him.”

Forcefully parting with Eve, Adam stands. “He will be disappointed of hearing about this deception that we have considered, our contemplation of going against his word. But he is forgiving and will be reassured of my renewed convictions and obeisance.”

Adam distances himself, as Eve, disheartened, sulks into the ground.

 


MICHAEL VINCENT MOORE is a social science writer and lifelong meditator, with extensive studies on human behaviour and dream research with over 30,000 reviewed dreams, and an active dream journal spanning over two decades. Fascinated by the potential of dreams and consciousness and their connection with our ultimate reality, he has devoted much of his time attempting to unravel the mysteries they contain through himself and others. Much of his insights and findings are translated into both his fiction and non-fiction writing. He is also the founder of TheOneHumanProject.com, a global initiative with a mission to scientifically prove that we are all connected.

Copyright © 2019 by Michael Vincent Moore. All rights reserved.

‘Before I Confess’ by Ian Kent

before i confess

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

I confess it again and again. What does it look like to always come back to this same pew, this same church, staring ahead to the altar, but glancing at the confessional door, week after week, confessing the same thing, never changing? Is cyclical forgiveness still forgiveness? The woman beside me just smiled at me. Did I just sin again? At least I think she smiled at me. Her hair is tied up in a bunch at the back of her head, and her hands are resting on her knees. I know her. I’ve met her before—at that singing thing. God, I’m a shitty singer. Did I just sin again? For saying God like that? I went to the singing thing because I don’t know many Catholics, and I want to meet more of them. They were all there after Monday Mass, even the priest, which I wouldn’t have even gone to if I hadn’t had the need to confess right after paying that woman for, God, I don’t want to say it, even think it—it is too difficult to admit even to myself. It was last week, and it was sunny. Sitting on the beach felt good until I got tired. Now, I’m not tired. I’m nervous. I’m not staring at the altar anymore. I’m pretending to stare at the confessional door, but really, I’m staring at her.  I wish she’d let her hair down so that I could touch it. Did I just think that? Do I actually want to touch someone’s hair? Is that my fetish? Should I confess that? God, what does it matter? After what I’ve done, losing all that money in that place simply because she said so, that longer would be better, she’d do everything, but it wasn’t longer, it wasn’t better, it wasn’t everything. We couldn’t even finish because cops surrounded that barren house because someone was abusing some dog. With crack? Was I going to be arrested? Were my desires finally to be chained? I had to leave. I had to get to work. When I went outside that cop said make better life choices and I lied to him saying I just got them McDonalds and he wanted to know about the dog, and I didn’t know and I just left. God, I wanted to kiss her. I even paid her way more just for that, but she wouldn’t let me. She wouldn’t let me. I just want someone who will transact a kiss. Will I ever stop desiring that? Should I confess that never-ending desire? If the sin is every inch of you, do you confess your very being? The sin of inches. I can be funny sometimes. Actually, I can be funny a lot. Even cruel. Too cruel. That’s why I said what I said on the beach; I wanted to be funny. To show how funny I can be. But I ended up being cruel. Their reactions were probably the funniest thing about what happened. No one laughed, except for me and that other guy. Some of them gasped and some of them looked sad and that priest just went on and on about clichés and how they are important. Grounding truths. Cornerstones. She’s looking at me with those eyes, blue like the sky even though it’s raining today, and she laughs. Did she just laugh? It sounded like laughter, and I laugh… because that man from the beach who told that horrendous joke is right beside me staring past my eyes to the confessional door. I remove my hands from my knees and lightly brush my hair bun that I so delicately tied. I stare at the door too. That door is mesmerizing. It’s so polished that it shines. Or glints. There is a thin window at the top of it that tapers into a cone. Neither the Priest nor the confessor are in its view. It’s a soft laugh, so I’m not sure he hears it. I confess that my cheeks are red. They’re whispering. Should I confess that? It’s eavesdropping. That’s a venial sin. The confessional isn’t traditional. You sit right beside the Priest and you look him straight in the eye. Even as a Catholic woman, I’ve never been afraid to look them in the eye. I’ll just tell him the confessional needs better sound proofing. Father Samuel is in today, I think. We met when I hosted that pro-life workshop for the Catholic kids at the high school. His voice was so soft. It charmed me. He wanted me to do more talks. Perhaps even to the adult parishioners. Yes, maybe. Maybe I can do that. Am I nice? My friends say I am. They also say I’m driven. Ambitious. Can kindness and ambition go together? Or do they clash? Should I confess that? Must I always confess it? How many times? Seventy times seven? That sounds tiresome, so I lie to him, my boyfriend, my betrothed, instead. Is the secret a sin? I lie. I don’t love. I don’t. Am I the only one who sins? Have I been staring at that man beside me the whole time? He requested we sing Hallelujah at the beach, and we sang it. I think he liked that. Then that young woman said that cliché “Jesus loves us this much,” and she stretched out her arms as if she was on the cross, “and died.” And then that man who is now beside me on this pew made that joke. God, she didn’t have to say it. It doesn’t matter if it’s true, or if it’s only true on some level. I gripped the sand and groaned when she said it. I shouldn’t have done that. It probably encouraged him to say the joke. On the beach his hair seemed pristine, untouchable. Now among the beauty of the church, the iconography in the window of Jesus crumpled under the cross, his hair is so messy. I bet his house is as messy as his hair. Clothing on the floor. Dirty dishes in the sink. Dust everywhere. A house needs to be kept in order. I have to be comfortable within my living space. He’s cute and his eyes change colour. That’s fascinating, isn’t it? He’s looking at me too. I blink. I’m so tired, and I rub my forehead… like I’m thinking, but I’m not really thinking. I’m a priest and I’m just trying to listen. There’s two others waiting outside in the pews. I’m hidden from them and exposed to this man who confesses to me. I’ve heard this confession before and respond with worthless platitudes and maybe the parishioner feels better, maybe he feels forgiven. Maybe not. I should be hidden from him. It is easier to accept forgiveness from a mysterious voice. Should I renounce my priesthood? Should I confess that? How innocent is that thought? Is that the first time I’ve thought that? I’ve certainly felt it for a long time, but duty breeds you past the feeling. You hope that it’s just a cyclical occurrence of emotion, that it will go away. That you are happy, that you enjoy your work, that you find it fulfilling. Still, how innocent am I? Did someone just scream? I ignore the confessor and open the door. He’s shocked and stumbles over his words. I don’t care. Someone screamed. It’s…what’s her name? She has her hands on her lips. Anne? Anna? No, it’s not that short. But someone called her Anne, I swear. It’s something longer. Anastasia. No, that can’t be it. I’m close though. Oh, and that guy. The jokester. “Jesus only loves you this much?” he scorned after that woman said that wonderful cliché (yes wonderful!) while stretching out his arms maliciously, “That’s not that long. It’s not that far. Only that much love? He only loves you that much?” I understand it’s a tiresome cliché and everyone says it, but did he have to make a joke about the length of God’s stretched out arms? Clichés can be grounding truths that hold us up like a cornerstone. And yet, we still reject it. The image works on so many different levels, and not only plays with length as a mathematical concept, but plays with it metaphysically as well. Length going beyond itself: mathematically metaphysical. So, really, it’s not a cliché. Annalise! There we go. That’s her. She listens. She really listens. Maybe I should tell her. I’ve got to tell someone. I’m not sure I can tell another priest. I’ve told one already. He’s back in the confessional, was just confessing to me, everyone confessing to each other—who forgives? It won’t matter. Even if he hears it and jokes about it, it won’t matter.  Men are usually a bunch of contradictory ideals, and I think he knows that, so he’ll understand. After all, I’m the one who will forgive him. He has no reason not to forgive me. Do I still have that power? If I want to leave, have I already left? Has God already left me? I reach out my hand to Annalise but that malicious jokester beside her on the pew reaches for her hair as if to touch the tips that curl over her forehead. But, he does not touch. His fingers suspend in unbelief. “Oh lord I believe! Help my unbelief.” She grabs his fingers and propels them into the braided bun at the backside of her head. It’s a swirling temple. His fingers scrunch against it and he yelps. Their lips mangle into each other—I wouldn’t call it a kiss, but I’m not sure what I would call it. Should I leave the cloth? It’s a sucking and a crinkling. A nervous chewing. Their lips smother over their teeth then smash into their cheeks and slobber onto their chins. She pets his eyes. It’s grotesque. She screams again. He slides off the pew onto the floor. She makes sure her hair hasn’t fallen loose. Then, she rests her hands on her knees. I cross myself. “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” Holy Ghost? Ghost? Who said that? I turn—

 


IAN KENT wrote, produced and directed the play “Abattoir Morning” for or; theatre (ortheatre.com). In India, Ian taught Shakespeare to Tibetan artists in exile and edited and contributed to Contact magazine. His poems have been published in Quills Canadian Poetry Magazine, The Prairie Journal, Scrivener Creative Review, Rhubarb and Contemporary Verse 2. His fiction has appeared in The Prairie Journal. His non-fiction has appeared in Rhubarb.

Copyright © 2018 by Ian Kent. All rights reserved.

‘Somewhere with a Pool Table’ by Clayton Longstaff

pool table

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

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

“Hello?”

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

“Vera! You used my number.”

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

“Nothing,” Emily said. “What’s up?”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Dana?”

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

“Oh.” 

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

“Who?”

“Vera.”

“Oh yeah, she did call,” he said. 

“And?”

“I said to call back.”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Kitchen still open?” 

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh,” Nick said. 

“You know Joe?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh yeah?”

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

“Nick knows all the stories,” Emily interjected.

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

“Jack and ginger,” Vera said.

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

“What happened to playing pool?” Nick asked. 

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh my.” Vera put down her glass. 

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

“He went back?” 

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

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

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

Vera shook her head.

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

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

“That’s terrible.”

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

“It’s true. You really don’t.”

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

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

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

***

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

“We’ll see,” he’d say. “We’ll see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh,” Emily said. “Okay.”

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

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

“Thanks darling,” she smiled up at Emily. 

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

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

“What’s it like to be married?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

Copyright © 2018 by Clayton Longstaff. All rights reserved.

‘Kinderchor’ by Ilona Martonfi

kinderchor

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

Begin to deliver a verdict a long time coming: “Guilty. Guilty.”

On the first day of fourth grade, Teacher gives me a pet name: “Schwarze, write on the blackboard.” 

My hands get dirty with chalk. Teacher touches my leg above the white ribbed knee sock.

The town Neutraubling G’Schichtn–Stories. I, Ilonka, as a pigtailed nine-year-old war refugee from Budapest, in 1951, was abused by Herr Anton Mathes, my teacher in Lederhosen. The man with a slight lisp. 

“Open your songbook,” Teacher says. 

My mother, Magda, buys me a Liederbuch. Boys and girls sing a Volkssong from Memelland with clear loud voices, “Zogen einst fünf wilde Schwäne, Schwäne leuchtend weiß und schön.” Once flew five wild swans, swans white and beautiful. 

“Schwarze, you can’t sing,” Teacher says. 

Dieter, Rudi, and I don’t make the school choir. Saturdays, I hear the children from the street, the Schlangenbau school windows wide open. 

Bavarian Forest chalk hills ridge. Danube River wetlands. Willow reeds and forsythia grow in bomb craters. A small pond. Just fifty meters downhill from where SS war prisoners worked in the factories of the Luftwaffe Messerschmitt airport. Flossenbürg subcamp for Russians, Poles, and Jews. A mass grave by the round well. 

Our renovated two-room Volksschule, the classrooms: tall windows, heavy oak door. And in Bavarian tradition, schoolchildren dress up and celebrate carnival during February Fasching at the Hofbräuhaus. Parade through winter streets. Snow on the concrete airport runway. 

Sankt Nikolaus and Christkindl. Iced gingerbread, Pfeffernüsse. My new fairy tale book by Brüder Grimm creates the surreal magic of witches and princesses during my childhood. Langer’s hill, where we take our wooden toboggans.

Gustav Jaich, the school principal. Teacher, Elfride Scholz, a young war widow. The Catholic priest, Pfarrer Böhm. Saturdays sewing and knitting with a Dominican nun, Schwester Anna. First Communion and Confirmation at the Regensburger Dom. Black and white school photos.

During that fourth year, my teacher, Anton Mathes, rides his scooter from Regensburg: Medieval Roman town, ten kilometers distance. Stalks this refugee settlement, families from Schlesien and Sudetenland. We are the only Magyars living in the old airport: Halle #7 by the Moosgraben creek. Butter yellow poplar trees. Birch trees. Using his classroom to meet kids, Teacher grooms relationships with the pre-pubescent. Married with two young sons. 

Movie days in the classroom, shades drawn. Whirring film reels. Classmates who see the fondling. Teacher stands behind me, his big body in the dark. My flowered cotton dress. My pigtails. I tell my best friend, Ingrid, one time. 

“Ich weiss es schon,” she says. I already know it.

Time and again, it is I whom Teacher chooses to target.

Five decades later, now living in Montréal, Canada, I still keep contact with old school friends. Send Christmas cards to Helga, the principal’s daughter. Spill my story in an email.

“Did you tell anyone?” Helga asks.

On and on it went. Year after year after year. He also molests boys. Finally, Anton Mathes is imprisoned. Sent into early retirement. 

“Er war in die Berge verzetzt, weisst du schon warum,” my friend Ingrid tells me. I am taking an overseas vacation in Europe with my family. Riding a train to Neutraubling. He was sent to the mountains, you know why.

Propped up by the illusion of a teacher’s work. Anton Mathes has nowhere to run, no tale to tell. 

“Guilty. Guilty.”

That happened to me. I thought I was the only one keeping it secret. Yes, it had happened. That’s where he parked his scooter.

 


ILONA MARTONFI is the author of three poetry books, Blue Poppy (Coracle Press, 2009), Black Grass (Broken Rules Press, 2012) and The Snow Kimono (Inanna Publications, 2015). Forthcoming, Salt Bride (Inanna, 2019) and The Tempest (Inanna 2020). Founder and Artistic Director of The Yellow Door and Visual Arts Centre Readings. QWF 2010 Community Award.

Copyright © 2018 by Ilona Martonfi. All rights reserved.

‘Wish Book’ by John Tavares

Wish Book.jpg

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

* * *

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

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

“As in deep—”

“Yes, that would be even better.”

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

“I was trained as a paramedic.”

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

 


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

Copyright © 2018 by John Tavares. All rights reserved.

‘Rifle’ by Conor DiViesti

Rifle

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

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

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

That wasn’t true anymore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ian?” Marta asked. “Go ahead.”

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

“I know, I believe you.”

“Thought he was a deer.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I miss him too,” Marta said. 

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

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

#

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

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

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

“Don’t say that.”

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

“You can handle it.”

The phone signal buzzed through their pause.

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marta shouted from the porch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

“Please, shut up,” said Ian.

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

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

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

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

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

“Doesn’t matter,” said Ian.

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

#

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

“Sad thing,” said Jenny.

“You bet.”

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

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

“How you doing?” Pete asked.

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

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

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

“Don’t I know it.”

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

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

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

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

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

Pete blinked. “Jesus, Karen.”

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

“How many times?”

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

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

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

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

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

 


CONOR DIVIESTI writes and lives in Toronto, Ontario.

Copyright © 2018 by Conor DiViesti. All rights reserved.

‘No Flowers on the Psych Ward’ by Ilona Martonfi

You Don't Bring Me Flowers

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

“Katarina! Katarina!” A female patient shouts in her room. Her voice, coarse and grating. “Come Katarina!”

“Shut up! Shut up!” A male patient yells back.

My eldest daughter lives in St. Mary’s Hospital psychiatric ward. Her name is tacked on a billboard. Patient status: Number 1. Date: January 8, 2001. Her backpack, salt-stained ankle boots, and parka are in a locked room. She can’t leave the ward without her doctor’s permission.

A pink slip of paper. A psychiatrist’s report. Cleaning her overheated, cat litter smelling, hardwood floor apartment a couple of years earlier, I found the hospital report: cognitive disorder associated with epilepsy, chronic. Borderline retardation and psychotic episodes greatly impair insight and judgment. Patient regressed to the mentality of an eight-year-old. Suffers from generalized anxiety: Permanent. The contribution of a chronic disease, sarcoidosis in the lungs, to mental state, is unknown. The hospital is requesting public curatorship.

Room 23 is filled with the sound of a radio blaring. The sun is streaming in through vertical blinds, across apple-green walls. With four female patients to a room, I find her lying on the bed. Short-sleeved, sky-blue cotton gown. Strings, untied. 

“Marisa, you’re not cold?” I ask. She is recovering from pneumonia. Ten days on antibiotics. 

“The doctor came by. He is going to take another X-ray.” 

My daughter half-smiles. Close by, a middle-aged woman snores loudly, a rumpled lilac blanket pulled to her chin. A typical Sunday visit. 

“Who are you?” one roommate asks. 

“I’m Marisa’s mother,” I respond. Terse. Clipped. I don’t want to be here shaking this woman’s hand. Sadness grips and twists my unshed tears. An ill daughter’s life. A dirge. The special daughter. Our three other children are not ill. 

My ex-husband remarried. They don’t visit here. Don’t call here. And Marisa doesn’t call them either. Medicated and growing heavier from side effects. The white-painted door closed to the static noise of a television in the common room. 

The little girl in a red top and blue cotton shorts, Marisa, who stuttered in first grade, took a yellow school bus. A Montreal suburb bungalow. Apple trees in the yard. Geraniums. Jasmine. Wild roses. At six, she stood up to her father, “Stop hitting mama.”

I busy myself: Organize tapes and CD’s. Trash old magazines. Hang up fluffy white towels that are thrown on the bed.

“I want to leave the hospital. I want to go home!” Marisa complains. 

Six years earlier, she had a house and a home. At thirty-six, she is the mother of three. Two daughters and one son. Youth Protection Court. Divorce Court. “Unfit mother!” Full custody to the father. I supervise her children’s monthly visits in my downtown studio “to prevent accidental harm to children.” 

During two hours, she hugs and kisses her children. Not a single word escapes her chapped lips. She smiles. Hugs. Is angry with me because I supervise. 

“Will we become sick like mom?” they are worried. Beautiful, smart, sad, and lonely grandchildren. Raised by their father, his new partner, and great-grandparents.

“I want to leave the hospital,” Marisa continues her complaining. 

The Old Brewery Mission for women. Home for my homeless daughter. Marisa rents a curtained cubicle with a single bed at the shelter. Roams cafes nearby until suppertime.

She is here in the psychiatric ward, because she suffered a panic attack. Picked up by ambulance at metro Beaudry. “A woman sitting beside me, called for help,” she’d said.

“Do you need anything?” I ask now. 

“Let’s go to the cafeteria,” she says. 

“We’re going to the coffee shop,” I tell a doctor. 

“Marisa, you can’t go out today,” says her nurse. “You have permission for daily thirty-minute outings. Yesterday, you were fifteen minutes late coming back.” 

She doesn’t own a watch. Doesn’t wear earrings or a pearl necklace. Doesn’t wear chiffon dresses. Walks in snowstorms without a wool hat or scarf. Parka unbuttoned. Boots, unlaced. Short cropped hair, unkempt. She refuses to cut her nails. When married she washed her hands all the time, until they were red and sandpaper dry. Her lung sarcoidosis exploding into pneumonia. She likes to test the rules and the patience of the staff. Exhausted, she exhausts me. For years now.

We settle for the dining room. I watch her sip apple juice through thick plastic straws. Her large hazel eyes look at me innocently. “I don’t belong here with these people,” she says. I look around: the room is deserted, except for a man and a woman. They sit alone, staring at their stoneware mugs. Islands of maple wood tables shape their Sunday afternoon. A nurse hands out cups of medications. Gives one to my daughter. 

After an hour I get up to leave. Plant a kiss on her cheek. Promise to visit the following week. An electronic door buzzes me out. I quickly walk away. I look back only once: a woman dressed in a hospital gown and blue jeans. Unlaced running shoes. Marisa ambles slowly down the corridor.

 


ILONA MARTONFI is the author of three poetry books, Blue Poppy (Coracle Press, 2009), Black Grass (Broken Rules Press, 2012) and The Snow Kimono (Inanna Publications, 2015). Forthcoming, Salt Bride (Inanna, 2019) and The Tempest (Inanna 2020). Founder and Artistic Director of The Yellow Door and Visual Arts Centre Readings. QWF 2010 Community Award.

Copyright © 2018 by Ilona Martonfi. All rights reserved.

‘Mud’ by Joe Bongiorno

Mud

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Guess you can say that,” replied Lespérance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You hate the country,” Lespérance replied. 

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

“You’re afraid of heights.” 

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

“You have allergies….” 

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

“You hate kids.”

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

“No one.” Lespérance finished the sentence. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

Copyright © 2018 by Joe Bongiorno. All rights reserved.