Sunday, January 30, 2011
Suddenly coming in contact with the physical presence of books that I've read as a child always fires me straight back to my first years on earth. This one volume right here, Hardy Boys Number Nine, The Great Airport Mystery so poignant, smacks me head-on with a blunt psychic slap. I feel almost physically stung, as if I should rush to a mirror and search for red cheeks. I don't remember the first Oh Henry! I ate, nor the first Tab cola I slurped, but Hardy Boys Number Nine -- what a raw scab I still scratch! (If it was another book altogether that still makes me so hard from the thrill of one word kissing another, a sensual string of illicit language liasons -- so be it. A false romantic view of one's past is hardly a sin to be scorned.)
Like Joe Hardy, I too, have an older brother, and I'm quite sure that this book was his before mine, but after me, let me state: no else stroked its firm spine, unless they silently scrounged my own bookshelf while I slept late at night. Something about that cover. Perhaps it was the sight of the two brothers themselves, our own doppelgangers (I wished!), intent and determined to solve this odd crime, despite their young age; or the soft silver glow of that police officer's badge; or the strange looming sight of that immense plane in the background, the painted blue wing on its side outlined in red trim -- all, in some manner, mysteries I might unravel, if only given a chance.
We all invent our own memories. Sometimes we're not sure what was actual, or merely an old photo's transmission. Yet that rising, tickling sensation returns when I stare at this book; images, arising. Myself at age six, tracing its cover, scenting its pages. (If you do not instinctively smell the whole breadth of a book before flipping it open, I'm not truly sure you can understand my obsession; if you neglect such a sniff, in truth, I feel pity.)
And a hardcover! These books were designed for my own meagre age and poor reading ability, but its binding bespoke an adult's large world and obsessions. If I might read such a tome, could I step any closer to Carson, that late-night treat for grown-ups? Dare I enter these pages, and possibly discover those secrets that lay just beyond nine-thirty at night? Only hardbound books might offer a look at a life that was more than mere noisy cartoons, or connect-the-dot outlines of vague shapes in blue crayon.
Before the orgasm erupts with all its new frantic shivers, what's the closest cousin we have to such spasms within? Whatever life force it is, I'm sure that I nudged it awake upon cracking that cover and finding a page near the front listing more excitement to come: What Happened At Midnight, While The Clock Ticked, The Witchmaster's Key and The Sting Of The Scorpion. Holy smokes, what a find! Such a future to follow! Not to mention the charcoal-style drawings beside the title page's bold print, offering a hint of adventures immense and unlikely, but present, right here between this back cover and front stacked so solid and firm. All I need do was open up.
So, that was some kind of a start. I soon read Hardy Boys books with abandon, in a literal sense -- all of real life as I lived it soon became a quaint backdrop to tales of domestic excitement, tarted with danger. Each story concluded with a foreshadow and tease -- the name of the next book in the series, embedded within the current adventure's last page, a crafty publisher's trick, not that I cared. Another, another, another. Give me more, again, better. The desperate lover's sad plea.
How long did it last? A year, probably less. A short, intense affair, myself submerged in another's embrace. After I devoured all those Hardy Boys stories --ignoring Nancy Drew's similar series with a quiet resolve -- I felt a great guilt descend, and I relapsed back to my first love of comics, and stayed loyal to them, more or less, stoned and drunk with their undemanding old magic, for a good four or five years.
I betrayed this vow only the once, and my heart still hangs low, drooping. For it involved Nancy Drew, and her escapades were for girls, end of story, enough. Please don't give them as gifts, I silently pleaded to unsuspecting grandparents and friends. One afternoon yard sale at the end of Grade Three, I rummaged through paperback stacks on somebody's front lawn until I found a new find: a tattered TV-Movie tie-in, a late Seventies relic, both Hardy Boys and young Nancy Drew teaming up to fight crime, with eight pages of dumb heartthrob photos stuck square in the middle, glued to the spine. Should I allow Nancy Drew to enter my world? Was the potential reward enough of a lure? Tormented, I finally decided to give it a go. After all, the Hardy Boys were her friends. Perhaps she had more grit than I could know or suspect. Begrudingly, I decided to accept her role in this tale, but it felt forced and unwanted, a betrayal of self. My first glimpse of compromise.
This, on the same day as my school's annual spring Fun Fair, Pine Grove Public's hurrah, not the summer itself but that courtship's first dance. Wandering around the transformed parking lot, a makeshift carnival on tarmac. Blue cotton candy inhaled straight from tiny white sticks, each lick and quick chew staining my tongue shades of sky. (Why do we eat other foods, yet inhale cotton candy?) The spring afternoon fading quickly to dusk, me walking home under shy purple skies, my face painted clown-white, crimson lips as an add-on, and that Hardy Boys find clutched between sticky fingers, skeptical, but excited, too. In Nancy Drew's own brave decisions alongside Joe and Frank, I might discover I'd been wrong, and this was enticing, a thought adults might consider.
A 1993 reissue, this current edition of The Great Airport Mystery's copyright states. 1965, 1957, and 1930 are the other reprint years duly dated, an entire century's vast sprawl reduced to small type, the years themselves slinking backwards in reverse incremental incarnations. Were we to somehow enlarge that white space between those four bloodless dates, a magic glass magnifying, our old house might arise from those random blank gaps, 10 Bayshore Crescent returned, restored and in full.
The year, 1980 -- or '81, at the latest. An ordinary evening, distilled. The family room is downstairs, just below old-fashioned doors saloon-style in design. Next to the fireplace squats our black-and-white television, just turned on and still warming, its small silver dot growing wide and inclusive, the CFTO news jingle announcing the hour; my father sits leans back on the couch with the paper all spread, as his pipe smoke slowly slinks through the room's cosy charm; my brother beside him, holding his small plastic glass of ginger-ale mixed with grape, an evening's great treat after street hockey's demands; the warm scent of roast chicken slowly cooked in the oven drifts down from the kitchen above, as my mother hums softly to the radio's tune, puttering and putting our whole lives in their place. I wander in from the toyroom, restless and bored, the Silly Putty's soft squish in my palm my lame attempt at delight. On the corner of our small oak coffee table, a new hardcover book made for children sits near its edge, forgotten, almost falling. Intrigued, I move forward. From now, life approaches.
Friday, January 28, 2011
After the war, the three of us left alive from our regiment decided to split the cost of living by renting an apartment together in downtown
I finally told them: Fuck it. Just give me the floor
Harsh cold and discomfort: my bedfellows of choice. I had spent a good many months sleeping on dirt and all of its natural cousins, and I had grown to enjoy, even require, hard rocks as my pillows. Could cracked kitchen tiles be any worse? Even the gouges those stones made on your neck and your ears offered their own form of love. The rain made you wet, the snow made you shiver, the sun’s rosemary heat burned you quite red, but those stones, at night, nicked you with edges that snapped you awake; compared to the weather, they at least served some sort of purpose. I couldn't find much else that did.
The pain from those nights spent scrunched up on granite didn’t even feel all that bad. Almost desirable, even. I grew to relish the sudden jolt out of dreams that shot me straight up out of my sleep and awake into the night. It reminded me that I hadn’t bought it just yet. I often thought of those stones’ sudden scratches with every shift of my neck as akin to own girl’s lengthy red nails back home in
Two years, off and on, of sleeping like this made white sheets and warm blankets an affront to my manhood. Give me a stray spot on the floor beside our small fridge, I told them. You pussies can have all the rest. They accused me of trying to play the tough guy. The war’s over, they said. You can relax now. At least take the couch. I told them to fuck off and let me sleep where I wanted. If 'playing the tough guy' was my one secret ploy, it wouldn't be enacted by arguing over who got the goddamn bed. The fridge’s dumb hum every night was bad enough; I didn’t need their daytime preaching in my ears, too.
For the first few weeks after returning to
One afternoon I woke up from a nap and saw Martin staring out of our tiny kitchen window, looking up at the snow that had steadily been falling since breakfast, a wide ruffled blanket extended like cotton. Giant, white flakes. We’d seen a lot of that stuff up in the moutains in Europe, and it had always reminded us of home. Now we were here and it didn't remind us of anything. It just was. Cold and wet and ugly.
I could tell by his gaze that his mind was already back there. He had a half-mournful, half-pitying face, but grotesque in its pose, exaggerated and false. I’d never seen anything like it. Almost as if he was imitating what somebody sad was supposed to look like. Something that looked so blatantly false must surely be real.
“Tell me this,” I said. I leaned up off the floor and swiped some solid sleep from my eyes. I was so hungry that it actually looked almost edible. Army food will do that to you. “Ain’t you the one who told me to get over it? You aren’t going to find anything out here that we left behind over there.”
He turned around and took a look at me head-on. I could see the one-quarter Metis in his face from that angle. Depended on the light, usually, but I spotted it this morning clear enough. A kind of natural cloak to his face that matched his black hair. I was going to make a crack about him scalping me, my usual jibe, but I shut my mouth before the words sneaked out. I sensed a shadow or two.
“I’m just looking at the snow, boss ,” he said. “Watching it fall.”
“Is that what you’re doing?” I said. Already thinking about how I could get the hell out of here for good and somehow make him feel better. I was too exhausted and indifferent to offer advice. “Looked like you were getting ready to jump out and start some other kind of life, depending on how the drop went. This is only four stories, you know. There's a chance you might actually live. You telling me you survived Hitler and Hirohito in order to break a leg on
That made him smile, but Martin’s smile had never done much for anybody, let alone himself. One of those half-hearted grins that made the other person wonder what lay underneath all that forced joviality. Anybody who forces a smile once too often can never truly look real ever again. Something else I picked up overseas.
Wait. Cameron said that? What a tool. Complete, Canadian Tire, power drill, tool. First of all, I wasn't the one that told him about Travis getting shot. I dont talk to Cameron if I can help it. Cameron, like, invents these conversations between us: "I was talking to Corrine, and she told me... Blah, blah, whatever. He thinks we have this, I don't know, bond. Our shifts usually don't even overlap all that much, maybe twice a month, but I know for a fact that he tells everybody at the store all the time that we were talking about whatever it is that pops into his whacked little brain. He just says shit.
Did Cameron tell you that we used to go out together? Or that we were even, like, friends? Jesus, what a knob. I've known him since, like, Grade Four, and I dare you to find one, single, person in the entire town that would tell you we went out for, like, as long as a day. An afternoon, even. We had some of the same classes together, sure. Chemistry, Math in Grade 11. Maybe Canadian Studies, I don't know. It's been awhile. He might have been there. I didn't, like, keep track of his presence. He wasn't on my radar, basically. I don't think he was ever on anybody's radar.
Wait. Who told you that? Kimberly? Oh my god. I know she was the one that told you that story. I know it was her. Not many people know it to begin with, so it has to be her. She hasn't liked me, since, I'm not even joking, Grade Three. I can't believe she told you. Like that little fact has anything to do with Travis, like, dying.
Well. I'm not going to lie to you now, because first of all, I don't lie. Like, to anyone. Let alone cops. Second of all, it doesn't mean anything, so whatever. You know already, obviously. I gave Cameron a handjob, like, three or four times, max, okay? Big. Effing. Deal. If he thinks that, like, constitutes a relationship, and if Kimberly does too, they, are, lunatics. I barely even remember it at all. Not because I'm, like, a slut, like I've had a hundred guys or anything, not because of that, but because, like, he's not the kind of guy you'd really want to remember. For a thing like that. Nothing special in that, like, genetic category. I think you get what I'm saying.
And it was, what, like seven years ago? We used to go watch the football team play. I think it was, when was it, fall of Grade Ten, maybe? I was supposed to be cheerleading, but I, like, twisted my ankle in practice, so I was out for a month. It still hurts when I stand on it for too long at the store. Anyway, I went to the games, just to see how all the other girls did on the sidelines. Cameron tried out for the team, and was cut, like, I'm not even kidding, the first hour. That's what he told me. So I ended up sitting beside him on the top of the bleachers a couple of times. I think he, like, manoeuvred himself beside me. We started talking and stuff, whatever. Like I said, I've known him since we were, like, nine. It's not like I could just ignore the dude. And it gets freaking cold in November, especially with the wind whipping all around the bleachers, and he wasn't as bad looking then as he is now, so, whatever. Stuff happens. It was all, like, discreet. I mean, hardly anybody ever came to our football games to begin with. I never saw any of you guys there. And it's not like we filmed it. And God, we were fifteen. And it's not like I even blew him, and if Kimberly says I did, she, is, mental, because that, never, happened. Probably in Cameron's dreams, it did. His dreams, my nightmares, right? Maybe in her dreams too, for all I know.
I only heard about it later, when I came in for my shift after the shooting. Vincent said that Cameron said that I was the one who told him that Travis was shot in the face. Yeah, in the unibrow. I totally didn't tell him that, because first of all, I didn't talk to Cameron at all after Travis was shot, not once, and second of all, Travis didn't even have a unibrow, so why would I, like, explain it that way? I guess Cameron is telling everybody that Travis looked like Bert from Sesame Street, which is ridiculous. I'm not saying Travis was getting ready to apply to be on The Bachelor or anything, but the dude did not have a megabrow on his forehead, and he was sure as hell better looking than Cameron himself.
Who, by the way, was constantly putting Travis down, telling him he was dumb and shit. He did the same thing to me whenever I saw him. I was reading one of the Twilight books at the till when he came in for his shift one night, maybe the third one in the series, I can't remember, and he was all, "ugh." I'm like, "fuck you Cameron!" I never see him reading anything. He just wanders around town with the stories he makes up in his head. That guy's still stuck in the past on the bleachers with me. That's his little fantasy, and he's making fun of me for actually reading a book?
Anyways, I don't want to talk about it anymore. Any of it. I just don't. You work with a guy for six, seven months, and he gets shot in the face, it just, I don't know, it makes you all sick inside. Then you add on top of that, the fact that people you've known for years are making stuff up about you, telling people you told them shit that you didn't, it just makes me even more, like, ugh. Bad enough we have to work in the same store where our co-worker, like, died.
And I don't see what any of this has to do with the fact that Travis is dead, and that the guy who did it is still out there bopping around. I don't know if you think some of us are bullshitting you, for whatever reason, but I told you already, I don't lie. Ask anyone. And if Kimberly was the one who told you I slept with Cameron, I will do more than bitch-slap her. I know you're the police, whoop-de-do, and I shouldn't be saying that, but I'm serious. She thinks that because I work in a convenience store, and because she went to college in Kingston, or wherever, she's, like, a better person than me? Please.
Oh, oh, oh, here's a tip: Why don't you haul her bony little ass back in here and ask her about Cameron again, alright? Ask her about what those two did in high school. All's I'm saying is, I'm not the only one who was good with her hands. Word gets around. Despite what she might think, I know stuff too.
Thursday, January 27, 2011
It felt like an odd, safe adventure. I can't remember everything we put inside -- notes to ourselves, some chocolate and candy, a few pages of ads from the local newsweekly -- but I do vividly recall writing a short note on scrap paper, something about the young serial killer who, along with his wife, had recently haunted my hometown and destroyed many lives, while I studied for math tests and played house-league hockey. The whole sordid tragedy had seemed so unreal that by burying this news it might act as a talisman. Smother all that bad mojo, perhaps. Turn back time, even. Life had accelerated too much.
The next year we returned to the cottage, and somehow we managed to find the same spot where we'd buried our jar exactly twelve months before. I seem to recall a map of some kind that we'd kept for a year in a junk-drawer or used book. Perhaps we simply made a good guess, took a shot with our shovels and got ready to dig. It wasn't that big a beach. The point is, we found the treasure. Under an hour, it took us. After taking our turns, I can't remember which one of us finally struck with our spade that small, solid shape in the sand. Doesn't matter. We all laughed with a strange sort of joy, those carefree mad cackles that only adolescents can shout without any shame.
A whole year had passed in our lives. (Twelve months at age fourteen or fifteen is quite an ordeal.) A Canadian winter, endured. Two semesters of school, over and out. Hockey games and track meets. Novels read, essays written, trumpets blown, guitars plucked. Four whole seasons had passed over that Planters peanuts jar with our junk, stuck under the ground with no light to befriend. Dark. Quite cold, probably. I almost felt sorry for all of our stuff, stuck inside that small tomb. We'd all been through so much that year, and this jar had been jammed in a hole way down in the earth. At least we'd found it. Gave it a chance to bathe in some sun.
We took the jar inside to the kitchen, cleared off the main table, twisted off the tight top. We all felt like magicians, unveiling our new trick for the whole world to see. No fresh smell of peanuts emerged, just dry, airless must. No matter. All the same stuff as last year, those random trinkets of time, but now they seemed new, somehow reborn. So were we, briefly. Our selves from the past had given us a small gift. Tiny things we thought were important had now become valid once more. Completed some circle. It was a joyous ten, fifteen minutes.
One of our small gang from the cottage ended up dead, either that year or the next, or the one after that. Tony. Big, goofy, funny Tony. My friend's friend. Fell asleep at the wheel, bounced right into a tree. Coming back down the Boulevard late at night, on the way home from Casino Niagara. Him and his other buddy, gone. Both of them seventeen, eighteen? As we lived in two different towns a highway apart, I mostly knew Tony from the summers we'd all spent on that beach hanging out, but still. Beach volleyball bonds kids together, as do thick chocolate milkshakes served in big metal mixers served straight from the kitchen.
Another thing: There was a private house right next to the resort, with girls our own age who sometimes strolled over to our beachside campfire at night. (Were there two girls or three?) I remember one evening, when all of us guys stared straight up at their small, second-floor window, a tiny rectangle of light that lit up our darkness. Occasionally, one or two of those girls would slowly, casually, stroll in front of the window. Getting ready for bed, brushing their hair. Toying with us, or so we liked to think. I even exchanged letters with one of those girls, a shy, tiny blonde, for a few months after that summer and well into the fall. At some point, the letters ended. I'm not sure who stopped writing first.
We never buried another jar. A few years later, I went off to university. None of us have been back to that cottage since we all were seventeen. Tony died soon after that. My other friends from that time, almost my brothers, I've not seen much of in years. The occasional party, a wedding. Time does that. It buries us.
All of those moments: a malleable glass that forms my own mental time capsule. Us standing in sand, gazing up like young fools at that bedroom's soft glow. Us sitting on logs, roasting marshmallows, listening to Steve Miller on tape, the Space Cowboy's sweet voice. Looking into that fire. Talking about jackshit. Ribbing each other. Under a northern Ontario night, its stars bright, almost winking.
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
For life was so novel! No language to curse out my confusion, or give praise to its virtues. Sensation itself -- all that I had to express simple needs. Tears, tangible: filling up all my vision, dribbling down my small cheeks, a regular spring, reliable. The roars from my mouth, the leaks out of my eyes, even the steady stream of hot shit exiting out of my anus, rancid but mine, were all solid proof I contained my own magic. I was nothing but tactile emissions; everything else, shades of shadows. A mystery with myself at its centre, the question mark's small, round dot.
When, inevitably, the light went away, the dark came back full. In that black for so long, I almost forgot light's true worth, its warmth and transparency, its unselfish bright wrap. Then it returned, garish but welcome. In each new burst of pure yellow -- grand faces that trembled. Soon, I supposed: someone other than me. Touching my skin and my hair. Stroking, but cautious. I felt their great fear, almost physically transferred. I was somehow limited. Separate. I began to sense that my own world must somehow soon grow to include those large forms looming so high and up there. Me. Them. Together. Life? If this was its truth, why this great hurt far inside, was it all just for me?
Next, often, pain. Quick and steady, slicing through insides. Agony intense, my cries gaining speed, gathering, soaring, achieving a strange manic pitch whose great height cancelled sound. These noises all merged with that round bulb in the sky that hung down from high up. After: nothing but silence. As sweet and as dense as the darkness it brought, this sound all but swallowed, the light sucked away, a full black embrace, lasting and firm.
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Travis pissed him off, most likely. The guy came around the store about one, one-fifteen in the morning. Wednesday morning. I wasn’t working that shift. I didn’t even know Travis was working, actually. I don’t think he was supposed to. Somebody told me – I forget who, Corrine, probably – that Travis took over from Morgan, who usually worked the Wednesday night shift. Needed to look after his mom, I think. She was in one of her moods where she can’t stop crying. Starts cleaning out the fridge with Lysol from six o’clock to sunrise. I don’t know how Morgan puts up with it, but he does. Strokes her hair and everything. Talks softly. No wonder he ain’t got any kids, dealing with a mother like that twenty-four seven. I can’t say for a hundred percent certain it was Morgan’s shift, though. I don’t know everybody’s shift. I mean, shit, half the time I don’t show up for my own shift. Hard to keep time altogether in my head.
But somebody, I think it was Corrine, told me that the guy asked Travis where the potato chips were, and Travis told him they were in the second aisle, near the back, and the dude asked if that was the second aisle from, like, the right, or the second aisle from the left, depending on where you were standing, and Travis kind of rolled his eyes, just a little bit, but boom. The guy took out a gun and popped him. Cranked open the register, grabbed the cash, vamoosed right out of there. They ain’t caught him yet, but I’m pretty sure they will. Hope they will, anyway. I’m working tomorrow night. I don’t want the guy swinging back on some kind of a comeback tour.
You know, Travis had one of those, what do you call it. Where your eyebrow ain’t nothing but one big line? The unibrow, right. Guy shot him right in the centre of that unibrow. Everything scattered everywhere. Travis had that effect on people, pissing them off like that. All that sarcasm. I used to tell him, not everything’s a joke. Not everyone’s got the sense you got. Or the sense that you think you got. Cut people some slack sometimes, because you ain’t exactly, what’s his name, that black-hole dude in the wheelchair. Hawking, right. You ain’t exactly Hawking, I’d tell him. You work at a 7-11 like everybody else. A customer asks you a dumb question, just answer it. That’s all. Answer it. No need to eye roll.
Corrine, I think it was Corrine, told me that they were still finding little bits of brain, like, a week later, tiny gray chunks in between the cigarette packs above the counter. Travis never had much of a brain, but still. Can’t help but feel for the guy. Nobody wants to see that stuff right near the cash register.
Monday, January 24, 2011
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Thursday, January 20, 2011
Maybe so, I said. Montreal can be cold.
A customer from Canada had come only yesterday. He said that haircuts back home could be two or three times what one would pay in this city.
More than that, I said. Ten times as much, even twenty.
He whistled and snipped.
He had married a Muslim, he told me, and so he had converted to Islam over ten years ago. She was from Mindanao, down south. Where Manny Pacquiao was from. The boxer.
I said that I knew him quite well. Had even seen him train in Burnham Park here in Baguio just a few months ago.
He told me had seen me running around town. But it was too cold here to run, he said. Better down south, where the air was much warmer. I said that, for me, this cold was my spring. He laughed.
Muslims make the best barangay chiefs, he told me. They don't drink, so they can patrol their own neighbourhoods and stay out of trouble. Alcohol is the cause of too many problems here in the Philippines. People drink. Get into sexual stuff. Rape not good.
He whipped off the sheet that covered my chest, an act that always reminded me of a magician's tablecloth sweep, a soft thrilling whoosh.
If I win the lotto, I will go to Canada, he said.
I smiled. Wished him luck. Gave him a tip because he said that my new short haircut made me look younger already. (At what age did I begin to care about seeming youthful at all? Two years ago? Five? Just now?)
Fifteen minutes. In and out. He told me his life.
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
The elderly narrator of Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead casually notes at the start that he takes a laugh when he can get it, never knowing how many chuckles he might have remaining. (Or words to that effect; she makes the point better than I do.)
This observation kind of startled me.
What a scary, wondrous notion -- that our laughs are limited, as fragile and finite as eggs in a carton. At some point, of course, we all end, but to think of laughter itself as doomed to extinction evokes in my heart a strange picture of loss. I imagine a boatload of laughs, small but still tangible, pulling away from a dock and heading far off to sea. Their close cousins -- the sigh and the sniffle -- waving goodbye from the pier as their kin take their last voyage alone. An absurd observation, to be sure, but I sometimes see my own thoughts as physical forces, so why can't I extend the same courtesy to a guffaw or two?
Nobody remembers their first laugh, and I doubt that few remember their last, but all the ones in between! Most laughs must linger. Kids must chortle their small asses right off at least a hundred times in one day. (In between their equally abundant shrieks of pure sorrow at life's unfair course.) Multiply that number each day long into adolescence; tone it down quite a bit as the decades pass by; then look at that number and marvel indeed at how long and how often we laugh through the years. To even consider this notion of laughter as something that might end with our death is more troubling than death by itself, at least in my mind. Laughter should stay, is all that I'm saying.
For is anything more curious than where and just why our laughter arises? A goofy picture or joke that one finds amusing may enthrall no one else. What is it, inside us, that needs this small burp of pure of joy that takes us out of ourselves? Perhaps a laugh is an organ that must arise when it can. A bubble of joy; the soul's own orgasm of levity. Something that levitates, a laugh is. We feel it rising like puke, but what a difference in taste! I could suck on a laugh like a candy for hours upon hours, like grape bubble gum whose flavor refuses to slacken or rust.
I've long been fond of a little game that nobody around me seems to find all that funny, namely: If you had the chance to find out what the last words that emerged from your mouth before dying would be, would you actually choose to know what they were? What happens if you say yes? Some celestial procter might look at his book, find your name on the list, and spout out a sentence that sounds something like this: "Ah, right. Mr.Spencer. Here you are. Your last words before dying will be: '"Is that orange for me?'" And I would be horrified for the rest of my days, wondering, each time that I held an orange in my hand: "Is this the end?" Or what if your last words were: "Sure." How often do we say 'sure' on a weekly basis? Surely hundreds. (See?) Every time you uttered that sound your breath would escape. Or what if your final sentence said: "I don't quite care for brownies." But you love brownies! What situation would arise where those words would be spoken? To know one's own preference and foibles is how we somehow manage to move through life with a modest amount of false hope. Knowing our last words might convince us, instead, that life is a joke where we are the butt.
Which brings me back to the laughter.
It's my newly built theory that laughs can't be lost. They come from somewhere within, and are released into the world from our mouths like smoke from a cigarette, smoothly and swiftly and soon without form. No laugh truly dies. It is transformed into motion and invited to roam through the world's endless sky. All those laughs up above, immersed in the clouds, transformed into rain, pouring down on the world even after we're gone.
Sunday, January 16, 2011
Humiliating? Well, I wouldn't say that. (Though I brood on it here.) As Spike Lee says in Mo' Better Blues: "I went to school; I can read." I would like to believe that my language is familiar, even intimate, with parts of myself that increase with age or experience. We've been through a lot, English and me. (Or is it 'English and I'? More confusion continues.)
Yet I read two books recently, one after the other, one fiction, one non-fiction, both by Irish writers -- The Untouchable, a novel by John Banville, and Are you Somebody?, a memoir by Nuala O'Fablain, and both contain words I've heard not once my life.
Here's a list:
dosshouse; chilblains; taoiseach; striations; embrasure; ostrichism; saurian; greensward; osseous; phthisic; propinquity; crapulous; benison; posy; pachydermal; cerculean; incunabuke; bridly; ferrule; oleaginous.
Still with me?
Some of them are vaguely familiar, but not familiar enough for me to hazard a guess as to their precise definition. And, let's be clear: these were not extracted from tomes that were made for scientific consumption, or computer textbooks -- these are words spliced and excised from books that are meant to be read. Enjoyed, even.
At first, reading the Banville book, coming across a couple of new words, I thought nothing of it. Happens from time to time, right? And the dude's Irish, so what the hell. You could read the sentence twice, three times, suss out the context, whatever. Do what I've told my students to do, and do what I've done with Japanese so damn often: Figure it out, take a leap, make an educated guess, figure out the context. All that dross.
As the novel went on, so, too, did these new words extend and invade my meek fractured psyche. New to me, they were. Apparently, not new to the Irish! Readers, obviously, who were assumed to be comfortable, even casual, if not intimate, with the nub of their nuances and cant of their subtext. I've always believed that the great British writers have had an education that soaks them in words and their textures in a way that puts us colonials to shame. Reading books like these two, mass-market texts designed to be loved, only confirms my essential, intrinsic smallness.
We all understand that there's technical words that elude and escape our comprehension and ease. Leave that lexicon to the computer programmers and mechanics who fix our lives faults. And good riddance, I say! Who wants to be locked inside the confined, stifling cell which contains a computer's vocab, or a car's thousand parts.
But a novel!
I retreat into a novel or memoir to breathe a new world, to relax in a stream that flows through the falls and rough patches but lifts me aloft. Instead, with these new words! What to say? I'm dragged right back down, into the overflowing whirlpool of my own ignorance. (That wet, drowning place!)
I guess I must make it my challenge. Not to be intimidated. Not to cower. To attack these fresh definitions and syntax with a warrior's raw spirit. Approach them, cautiously, in the same way a hunter steps softly towards his close prey. Confident that soon a shot will ring out, and the deer will be his.
(And I'll pretend that I won't hear the muffled, giggling guffaws of a million Irish at play in the language I love, the one that still shows me who's boss.)
Thursday, January 13, 2011
I can imagine these same boys on the streets of St.Catharines, taking the bus to Bill Burgoyne arena. Toques on their heads, in the Leafs' blue and white. The white breath of winter steaming out from their mouths like small gentle puffs of cigarette smoke. Hockey sticks in their hands as they descend from the bus and delight in the hour on the ice that soon will be theirs. After practice will come some X-box and sweet cocoa, with math homework to dab at in front of the tube. They will slip into bed and soon snatch some sleep, while January's mad howl, juvenile and whining, seeps through their windows and resides in their dreams, a faint, haunting shout that will wake them and make them wonder what they just heard. A pillow flipped over, and they'll slide into sleep once again. Tomorrow morning: a history test and a lab, and some assembly or other. Pragmatic concerns that no night nor its wind can decipher or alter.
Those dirty street kids. Here. On these streets. Never touched ice. Back home a few weeks ago, on the outskirts of Ottawa, I saw a teenage boy wait for the orange bus that would take him away for the day. He looked bored, irritable. Sick of the winter snow and the wind, and the Christmas break that had yet to begin, and might never come. Highways and farmland, nowhere's domain. Anywhere but here, he seemed to be thinking. Take away his toque and his scarf, and his jacket and knapsack, and drop him right here with these boys straight from Baguio. Stinking, streaked with grunge, grime. Sockless. Walking on pavement, their toes sliced by stones. Pissing in alleys. Rummaging through tin cans for food, some scraps for a snack. The park as their home; a bush as pillow, with thorns in the ear for a late-night tickle or two. Getting cold at night, but not nearly frost.
I can hardly imagine them meeting -- that Canadian kid and these young Pinoy boys, in some realm of existence much kinder than ours. A collision of worlds. (Three meals a day, with chips and pop in between!) Stuck in a room, the smell would be strong, the stink of some skin that has never sought soap. Would that stench be the grounds for some kind of detente? Perhaps it could be used to break that strong ice, a conversation's sly start. Kids are kids, after all. They must have a link they might relate to together. Give them a desk, some chairs, forty minutes. A few Cokes. They have similar anxieties, hopes, disdains. Three are homeless, discarded, rummaging for food, a quick high, while the other is pissed at his high school's computers. (They're always logging off, crashing. Parking lot is always full, too.) The weather is different, the seasons inverted, mutated, but other than that: what a world of connection!
If I left them alone, flashed a large smile, gave them space, four kids the same age, something might shift. The malleability of youth, and all that. We are all one people, that deal. A dialogue might commence. Some downcast eyes, coughs, sighs, sure, but kids are kids. Eventually they'd connect. Might even bond over tall-tales they could tell of illicit booze they'd once snatched, the Canuck from his mom, the Pinoys from some gutter. They'd understand their commonalities. Realize that they are not so distinct from each other, as society insists. A bath and a comb, some shoes and fresh socks, boxers or briefs and a white-buttoned shirt -- given these gifts, who could tell them apart? Who?
(If you answer 'I could', then I suspect we are doomed.)
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
(Putting yourself into somebody's mind is a game played by fools, by us, the humans, earth's ultimate knobs. We read books, watch movies, write poems, sing songs, punch teeth, stab ribs, swap tongues, lick ears, flick nipples, and all for the sake of some kind of transference. Good, bad, whatever, whenever. I can feel what you feel; you can sense my true love; I must show my great anger; you will know my wild wit. We can't know anybody (let alone ourselves!), but we crave a constant kind of touch, vicious or tender. Sometimes both, together. If only for variety, originality's poor cousin.)
I give her, this old hag, somebody's grandmother and lover, some coins. They drop in her hands like metallic m&ms. She looks at the colour of these shapes, the faces, the value. Checking their worth (and her worth? and mine?). She leaves. I watch. She's played her small role, to beg; I've completed my part, to give. She's done what's been built to do -- accept. She slowly stumbles away through the park, towards others like me. Ones with clothes that fit well, and hair freshly trimmed, and washed, and smelling of soap store-bought just days ago.
A little after noon. Six, seven hours more of sunshine to go. (No daylight-savings time over here! One can beg for one's dinner for hours upon hours! Woohoo!) More than enough time to gather more loot. I feel guilty for giving. One would think the opposite emotion would hum. Yet if you give, just so that your own errant guilt takes a form of sabbatical, who's kidding who? A remorse will grow, then fester. ("Oh, aren't you a kind one! Compassion's true friend, valiant and noble! Portraits deserve to be painted of your humane strong visage! To think! He gives twelve cents to the wretched, and asks for nothing in return! Write a song for this man, melodic and resonant! Let's build a statue in the square, marble and gleaming!")
Oversimplifications abound, of this sort, when charity runs its fingers through the long hair of excess. A simple act should -- should it not? no? never? -- result in simple rewards. Giver gives; taker takes. One plus one, and the answer is two. Instead, what I find when I age is that math plays no part in this human(e) equation. Additions result in subtractions of self. Ostensibly generous acts make oneself feel petty and vain. Multiplication divides. The other stays 'other', with 'myself' cut in two. (Three? Four? I've never been good at math.)
Sunny new days, in this place, as the year begins. No more resolutions or goals, not on this day. (If only, connect!) Old ladies in rags, hunched-over and half-dead. Caked in their own dirt, hands out and begging. Or simply asking. For what, I can't say.
Monday, January 10, 2011
This ease of approach; this fearless unleash of all that is fluid and direct might almost be sacred, if its agents weren't kids. Those tiny love munchkins! Those smiling cherubs. Those angelic small masks that we pose for so long to get photos that erase all signs of the truth -- that, beneath those great grins, the most forceful of smiles, natural and honest, all our old impulses, ancient and ready to rise, (should they be summoned) still exist. Each child knows what we dampen, and wipe clean away upon waking like green slinking snot. All the red rage. They bring it forth, the kids do, with a spit bubble's gross ease.
We've all lost what they enter into with nonchalant fuss. Biting, pinching, kicking, taunting: What we express through lovemaking, 'safe' and quite coy, a 'roleplay', we call it, trite and all plastic, harmless and staged with awkward poses and angles, they dive into with relish, expectant and proud. In waking life, should we try such attempts at clumsy violence against our neighbour -- that prick -- the police would be called, with forms to be filled out. (In triplicate!)
Kids, though. Kids can go at it with the strange grace of a grass blade being pulled from the soil. (Some tiny life has been severed, but no matter! There's more fields of this stuff.) To give in to those dark impulses we big-folk stash away (like coins in a pig to extract, later, when the collection has grown with the weight of our postponed deposits), why, that's what these tiny blessings of ours, these young creatures of flesh can call up, with no second thoughts of remorse. Blind, black rage, aimed at that other, one who shares their own blood, their same smile and forehead. Their breakfast, their toys, even. The ultimate defense, this primal mad swing: You may want what is mine, but it's mine, so retreat. A sensible, some might say moral reaction. Only later, we learn, to divide our sweet pleasures with those we love most: I'll give you this, and thus expect more of that; you grant me those, and I'll allow you all these. A bartering of small treasures, that our ego allows in the name of 'civility'. (What we must lose to exist, in this society of family and friends!)
What is taught to the young'uns, so they, too, might become the empty shells of us adults, who monitor emotions and rescind our base impulses! Not entirely useless, this shell with no stuffing. Think of a seashell on white sand, for example. You can fill it with with junk, knickknacks and such, hear the ocean at all times, its wind mournful and empty, evoking empty beaches at sunset, its tide sneaking out. (That this wind that we hear is an illusion, a crustacean's odd gift, a sea lacking water or presence, is a reality best left unexamined this time.)
To be full like those children, full of rage and entitlement. Willing to defend a small truck or blond doll with the wrath of a god newly spurned. Almost noble, that impulse. One we must forfeit for life in a world of kickbacks and compromise. That often, if not always, a child's selfish rage is replaced by a smile and a laugh that so readily erupts like a firecracker ablaze with its own frenzied light is small proof that our best selves will ignite after all. Given space, time, and just enough prodding, and the gentlest of sparks.
Saturday, January 08, 2011
To end at a place so remote from our origin is an experience we shrug off, a twenty-first century perk, life vital and viable. After all, what strange joy can a jet ride give us in full, when the click of a mouse and the drain of accounts gives us a world of new plastic stuff to stack our self-worth. (And to think that a computer's small mobile console, attached to a cord, should now be aligned with a gray furry rodent! Man has come quite a ways.) Left behind, mute, like a dull child who can't keep up with the pace of a his classmates' quick wit: a piece of our souls, a small slab of self still stuck at the airport back home, refusing to board.
Now: in this warm place, in mountains above small wisps of white clouds bearing no hint of dull ash -- just a few days before I was elsewhere indeed, squat in a cold space, crunching through snow, the sky not blue like today but instead shrouded in gray, that colour of rubber erasers all smudged and dark-stained from sweaty good use. (Erasing the unnecessary.) Twelve hours ahead, I've somehow leapfrogged through time.
Where did they go, those hours? Literally, I mean. Lost like loose lint from my pocket. Somehow I've convinced myself they still exist, in some form meant distinctly for me. Locked up in a vault that gamely shuttles its route on its own from my homeland to Asia, straight above that Pacific. (I gave up this part of myself to that safe, somewhere over Russia.) Inside its shut doors, buried beneath my own memory, a crude form of a bridge, could, if erected with care, and the right brand of tools, serve as a track that might make crossing over an option. Back and forth, from time to time. I could link two separate selves across that wide ocean, for I think, with the passage of years, they might just get along. If I could find those missing twelve hours, multiplied.
My grandfather's dementia, my niece's sweet laugh and my nephew's mad crashes on carpet, manic and joyous, my overall family's understated good heart, and the sound of my skates on a rough patch of ice as a puck leaves the blade of a crudely taped stick, slicing cold air, Canadian, its jab -- all of this stuff, I'm convinced, exists in some form almost Platonic in structure, above the earth's limits, preserved in that space where lost time resides as a taunt that we turn to at night, when sleep slips away.
Perhaps those hours we lose from such long forms of crossing intersect with our lives at stray points in our future. (If the door to that safe in the sky somehow cracks open.) I often wonder, on some future flight, bored by the movie, sick of the small salty pretzels couched in slick plastic, if I might look out my window and spot, for a moment, those hours I've lost track of over the years, hovering, then drifting, just past the wing. They will exist as physical, floating things, those memories I've missed out on, and the real ones, preserved. New memories as solids, as concrete as brick. Only these moments would act as small forward regressions, highlights from life that I somehow missed living. Surely, if we lose twelve hours of life simply in some kind of movement, within those minutes themselves exist what we might have enacted. Laughs had, friends met, kisses granted, promises exchanged, vows destroyed. Snow that fell, dew that glistened. The natural stuff.
I think those hours are there. (Existence, as a whole, cannot divert or discard its treasures with ease. I'm betting on this.) That time that was taken I'll make do my bidding. Dreamer that I am, in my own lunatic logic, I can hoard those hours again, crack the key to that vault that soars through the sky, examine its treasures to see if I left any life far behind. In those minutes I might find something I can take forward, even covet.
Tuesday, January 04, 2011
Being abroad for so long only intensifies notions of sweet special access. This land is my land, not your land. I come from a zone that activates my emotions with notes from a song. I know, I know, you don't have to shout: you do, too. But this is the thing, the 'thing' you can't get -- my place is better, and fuller, and musical in shape, almost aquatic in tone. It does things to me, this place does. Your so-called 'country' may do the same, but not to me, and that distinction exists as the fence I can't cross. You stay on that side; I'll stay on my mine. We'll both sing our own songs, and tear up together, but I won't look over your way, and please, don't glance at my path.
Perhaps this truth that I sense is not as plain and banal as I once believed with such force; that we all hate our own neighbours, and despise those small gaps that remind us of us. My neighbour's fence touches my grass five inches too far; China's ships coast through waters too near to Japan. Cambodia fears (with a fury!) that Thailand covets its land; Canada grumbles at the States' indifferent ennui. The fences look different, their paintjobs unique, but come on. Let's be real. We don't like the looks of those folks in that house next to ours. That's all we need to be real to forge our small hatreds. I once saw this as simple, but now I think not. Something within us demands an allegicance to the land that sustained us.
Yet I think of a 'me' born in my country of birth, but elsewhere, a place that smells of fresh piss, and booze bottles uncapped, freshly drunk, then discarded. Hallways that echo and moan with the clump of tired shoes. Guns fired nearby; drugs snorted so close. My country exists as nature's playground and small lab, but the cities, too, are valid and squalid in equal small measure. Suppose straight from my birth: my land as that building, decrepit and dangerous. When I saw the police patrol those dank streets each night (or not!), what I would think, as a child, of this country so wide? Not for me, that breadth; not for me, that 'nature'. (Of course, urine is natural, as is the need for another small swig of that tiny brown bottle.) If I lay out in bed, and stared at my ceiling, and heard the fresh fight of the couple upstairs, would I feel the pride in my land that sticks with me still?
For now, I'll let the question subside. Easier that way. Best to stare at my flag, and feel that small lump in my throat and know it's not cancer. Instead, it's my country's sweet song rising up from within. Reminding me of my youth, and my hopes that this ground that I tread on allowed me to dream.
Easier that way.
Monday, January 03, 2011
We know it's all arbitrary. The dates themselves; our lives, especially. One moment begins where the other must end. Your life finds its true groove just before it completes the last spin of some cycle that conveniently, intentionally, winds up its rotation where you least expect locks on a window that will open no more. I'm born, you're born; he croaks, she lingers on. Bitter at life for letting her live. Is there a pattern at play? Literally, I mean? A round of parcheesi for one, whose rules and small pieces are kept by a God as a child covets toys? Perhaps chance is the facade that masks its own pattern. With God as the artist who paints this sly shield. Protecting his board game, while we turn to mystics for solace and booze for some syntax, a grammar of empathy that gives us our due. (Or what we think we deserve.)
Yet there are moments when thoughts such as these feel as futile as punching the wind and expecting to hear a low moan in response. Life has a whack of its own, silent but present, that tempts me to doubt my own cynical ploy. The cool air of winter infects our old bones with a constant assault almost cheerful and coy in its relentless sharp jabs. How hot is the room that we enter after such a chill joust! That warmth of a house that welcomes us back from December's raw kiss, tongueless but slick with its own frigid spit. Off goes the coats, down with our gloves, our hands rubbing quickly, starting some fire.
In that moment when winter is shown the slam of a door, something inside of me shifts and then settles. Almost an exhale. A battle has been, if not won, at least postponed. Hot chocolate awaits. The clock by the fireplace does its slow thing. Mechanical, yes, but constant. Progressive. Spring, far off, approaching. I can feel time as my ally, at least for that moment.
Happy New Year.