November 28, 2010
On the way home from Lake Louise, Mira cries in the backseat, quietly, so quietly that I have no idea she’s crying, but she tells me later that she was. We spent the day on the back side of the mountain going off small jumps and having a session midday at the Thank You For Pot Smoking place with a few of the fiends, the group of dudes from our school with special status due to their ability to smoke the fattest doobs. One of the fiends is missing. Coulter Holmes and three other kids from school. They never came home after snowboarding yesterday. They went to Nakiska before it was officially open to get some early snow, hiked up the mountain with their boards strapped to their packs. Kids went out of bounds all the time, but I’d never heard of anyone going up a closed hill. No doubt why Coulter did it.
“It’s probably just some sort of miscommunication,” I tell Mira from the front seat, my older brother Markus driving, his head bobbing to his chest every once in a while until I slap him awake.
“They’re probably in Banff out getting wastie somewhere,” Markus says.
“Or maybe they had some car trouble,” I say.
It had happened to a group of us just the other weekend. We ran out of gas near Chief Chiniki and had to use torch candles from the ’88 Olympics to keep warm, saving our remaining battery power to play the Fugees as we waited for Coulter’s dad to pick us up. Recently moved here from Newfoundland, Coulter had achieved full fiend status despite all odds and accents, and unlike the rest of the Princes of Malibu – he actually deserved it. The other fiends lived in the nicest homes, had the nicest gear and always had weed. Coulter had nothing but a high tolerance and a friendly disposition. We’d bonded on the trampoline at an out of control house party, deciding that it would be a good idea to ring the doorbell of every house on the block as we hid in the bushes.
“I’m worried,” Mira says.
“They’re probably home by now,” Markus says.
Big things don’t happen, I want to explain to Mira. Life is not a movie. People die, but not dramatically. They die of cancer and heart attacks and old age. There is no plot in life. No matter how much you sometimes wish there were.
The car jets down the highway, the night sky as black as the ice on the road.
My mom is calling my cell. I pick it up and she starts talking about Coulter.
Why is she saying his name?
There were all found dead in an avalanche this morning.
I hear myself burst into tears.
May 17, 2010
The summer has cracked. Illiya can feel it sizzling down at him as he surfaces from Okanogan Lake. This means the people have cracked, too. Sunburnt skin covers the blood-orange strip of Penticton City Beach, families fresh out of winter hiding baking on beach towels in low SPF, parents half-watching their children alongside other half-watching parents, their beer disguised in insulated neon glasses. Illiya dives back under the lake’s surface in a long lunge, the cool water a slap in the face. Underneath, beyond the muffled screams of playing kids, the swarms of criss-crossing boats, the reverberating clash of pumping beats from the train of trucks on Lakeshore Drive – everyone exploding into their summer selves, Illiya wades further out, the sand trailing off under his feet. In the winter, there is hardly any snow in the Canadian desert. No bad storms, the Okanogan valley sheltered by the massive Rockies further north, hardly even much frost, but still everything dies for most of the year. Everyone. They lose themselves when the valley drifts away from the sun. Surfacing past the buoys, the bare red mountains rising up with him the way they do when they come up with the dawn – arid and hovering, layers of the unknown rippling through their cores, a heaviness drains through Illiya like the liquid concrete he pours into the foundations of houses – thick, slothful, and grey. It was last September when Ivy first rubbed those firm circles against his scalp, tipped his head back against the cool ledge of the sink and doused it with that perfect push of warm water. She gave him a discount on his haircut, said she liked his hair short, liked the sideburns, the curl. ‘Almost like a black guy,’ she scrunched a fistful. Not one of those words or touches were real. Illiya floats on his back and looks into the vacant blue sky. Leave you when the summer comes rolling…
A football splashes Illiya to his right. ‘Ill,’ he hears his name.
Illiya squints to see Jer from Summerland wading out to retrieve the football, a girl in a bright red bikini taped to his waist. Jer, an old hockey buddy with a knuckle-crushing handshake, drove his truck off a small cliff last June on his way home from a bush party in Naramata, drunk off the early summer sun and maybe too much whisky. As he approaches, Illiya sees that Jer’s drunk now at only four o’clock.
‘What are you doin’ out here, Ill?’ Jer asks, his eyes sloppy in their focus as he squints through the sun.
The girl in the red bikini looks at Illiya with an unpained smile, her wet hair red like Ivy’s, but her labret, pierced with a silver stud, nothing like the smooth curve of Ivy’s chin.
‘In for a dip,’ Illiya says.
‘Where’s your hot girlfriend?’
Jer nods half understanding, twirling the football and then dropping it. It smacks the water’s surface.
‘Come to the bush party tonight,’ Jer invites Illiya, drawing the girl in the red bikini back in close.
Used to be Illiya couldn’t wait to lose himself in the Canadian night air. Couldn’t wait to press his mouth against the cold, white teeth of some girl beside a barely controllable bonfire, digging through her layers to get to her warm skin.
‘Maybe,’ Illiya says.
‘Better see you there.’ Jer and the girl drift towards the shore.
The desert heat presses against Illiya’s face like the palm of a hand. But this year it’s just heat, the happiness siphoned from it. He imagines her taking a red and white straw to the sky and sucking the sun right through it like an egg yolk. Emerging from the water and stepping onto the hot sand, red like clay and thin as dust, the sun dries Illiya’s skin in seconds. He slides on his warm, dirty work jeans. Funny how they call the town blue collar – he’s never worn a collar to work in his life. Walking home, a thin wind rattles the leaves on the sparse line of trees along the beach, a small relief from the pressing heat. Along the strip of party motels people sit on patios and balconies drinking beer, worries burned up, moods melted by the sun, as though this is where they really live – in summer. As though they’re all okay year round. The smell of exhaust from the busy Lakeshore Drive pollutes their joy, blows their cover. What they really are, or what they’ll soon be: drunk and in debt with more kids on the way. Illiya walks down Main Street against the traffic, the long one way street the town’s strategy to churn the tourists through quickly: get em in, get em out, so they don’t overcrowd the already tainted Okanogan paradise. Don’t tell them that Penticton means ‘a place to stay forever.’
Shrieking inside the old white house. A broken plate on the porch, shattered pieces of blueberry pie. Illiya can hear his sister, Angelica, crying inside. The fights have been happening since Angelica started smoking Marlboroughs, wearing tube tops and platforms, and coming home late or not at all, her summer job at Dairy Queen the shame of her new glamorous life. ‘Another victim of the devil’s playground,’ Illiya’s mother has been saying. But Angelica is like a cat – she doesn’t come for anyone.
Illiya climbs the porch steps, its white wooden posts peeling like sunburnt skin, and he nods at Nate up on the ladder, odd guy around Illiya’s age from down the street hired by Illiya’s mother to repaint the house, always silent, smoking, strange grey halos around his irises that Illiya had never seen on anyone before. Made it hard to look Nate in the eye, literal bull’s eyes drawn around them, he didn’t want to stare. Nate offers a nod, his cigarette smoke wafting down.
Inside, Angelica is yelling, her voice sugary like cotton candy even when she screams. ‘Why are you such a bitch to me?’
‘You read Revelations,’ Illiya’s mother screams back. ‘Illiya,’ she notices him as she removes a steaming hot glass dish out of the oven. ‘Take your runners off.’
Looking around for broken dishes, Illiya does.
It’s the wallpaper that gives the kitchen its crazy feel, red and white checks with different aproned old maids in each white square staring out at you like they blame you for their trapped, wasted lives. At the kitchen table – dark oak covered in a red doily – Angelica holds a bloody paper towel over her foot, her legs wrapped around herself, toasty brown from months of preparatory tanning. Illiya’s younger sister, Kiara, sits beside her cross-legged, a bowl of cherries and an Archie comic sprawled in front of her. ‘Revelations is a crapload,’ Kiara says to no one, twisting a cherry stem in her mouth.
Kiara used the Bible their mother gave her for her twelfth birthday as paper mache for a piñata in the shape of a pink cow, which their mother unknowingly smashed to pieces on Mother’s Day.
‘We’ll see who’s laughing when the sky starts to fall,’ Illiya’s mother slices the casserole with the hack of an axe.
‘Will you be laughing then?’ Kiara asks. ‘Really, Mom?’
Illiya hovers in the kitchen doorway, his mother’s mind like a factory home – an unsturdy frame built from a pre-packaged blueprint, no use even trying to renovate.
‘Only Jehova can read hearts,’ his mother tells Kiara, her stock non-answer to difficult questions.
It was Illiya’s mother’s Seasonal Affective Disorder that got her hating blood transfusions and independent thinking like Jehova himself. Got her handing out pamphlets of people petting lions to her poor ex-league mates at Sun Country Bowl. But even with Jehova, she still spent winter days curled up in bed, the dishes piling up in the sink. Even with the special sunlamps given to her by church elders propped up on desktops and cabinets she still some days couldn’t speak to her own kids. Her SAD lights, she calls them – ten times the brightness of normal lights. Lights as close as possible to the sun, built to drown out any darkness, inside and out. Above the kitchen table, in a stained-red glass pizza parlour fixture, one of them gleams down now – bright as an eclipse.
‘You’re grounded,’ Illiya’s mother tells Angelica with her knife.
‘What?’ Angelica cries. ‘It’s finally decent out and you want to lock me inside this hellhole?’
‘Mom found crystal in Gel’s purse,’ Kiara reveals.
Angelica sobs under the hood of her pink sweatshirt, the smell of hot broccoli casserole braiding the room.
‘What is crystal anyway?’ Kiara asks, delighted. ‘Speed, right?’
‘Shut up, Kiara,’ Angelica shrieks.
‘The devil’s poison,’ Illiya’s mother scowls.
The SAD light burns down on them in technicolor, the wash of light against the sun outside somehow making the room somehow darker. When Illiya was in high school there were budding alcoholics, burnouts, even some cokeheads among the orchard owner’s kids, but meth was new – the poor man’s coke, a fraction of the price for a dirtier high that grinds your jaw. ‘Why don’t you just smoke weed or something, Gel?’ Illiya suggests.
‘Fuck you, Illiya!’ Angelica shrieks through her smudged mascara. ‘I’m not even doing it anymore!’
‘I can see it in your face,’ Illiya’s mother spits. ‘You’re ruining your beauty.’ She slams the casserole down on the table. ‘Illiya. Sit.’
Blood seeps through Angelica’s paper towel in the thick kitchen heat, the cherry rim around Kiara’s mouth like badly drawn on lipstick. The day’s sweat gathers at the base of Illiya’s neck. ‘I’m going out,’ he mumbles. Chucking his hat on the banister, Illiya disappears into the basement and steps into the shower, its droplets prickling his face like tears. Ivy never cried. Physically shrugged him off when he wanted to know her reasons, just like a dude. Illiya lathers the bar of soap in his hands like he’s lighting a fire and scrubs his face with it even though it burns his eyes. Ivy wants her summer. With no boundaries. Like that house he’s working on down in Keremeos – no line between its backyard and the bush. Under the hot drizzle of water, Illiya can feel the metallic grit of her scissors skimming his ears.
As the sun lowers itself into the sheer screen of red mountain, Illiya backs his truck out of the driveway, the holographic bumper sticker on his mother’s hatchback flashing in the falling sun: ‘Choose Life, Your Mom Did.’ Stopping at a gas station on Main Street to fill his tank, the attendant slips him his chips and change under the hard plastic window, the town’s transient nature a perfect anonymous setting for lapses in honesty, sanity. Illiya drives through the town centre, one of the storefront shop windows smashed but still hanging in delicate web of glass. Lapse.
The black night air is mild and glazed with salty grease from the French fry truck on Orchard Lane. Across the street, a girl with a perfect body wearing a skirt just short enough to make her look pitiful roams past the lined-up clubs. Lately, the bush parties had been dying out, Illiya’s friends figuring they were grown up now and should be getting dressed up and going to the town bars. A revolving beat thumps into the street as Illiya drives past the waiting girls in white dresses and sandals, guys in white collars and dark jeans. Ivy’s in there now, probably. This is what she wanted. To be in the centre of the things. Illiya lets the one-way lead him out of town.
Each jutting rock on the mountain road clinks together the beer bottles in the back of Illiya’s truck. At the site, fifteen or twenty cars line the dirt road that trails off into the large open field, another ring of trucks further out circling a tall fire of things that probably shouldn’t be burned in the black expanse of night. Illiya parks, grabs his beer, and walks out to the fire, loud, hard, sad rock playing from someone’s fuzzy truck speakers. He kicks the case under the wheel of a truck and breathes in the tannin dry night air.
‘Ill,’ Jer thumps him on the back. ‘Sweet that you came.’
Jer has sobered up since this afternoon. Illiya recognizes that look of paranoia in Jer’s eyes, the look of things falling apart – why Jer drinks in the first place. Why most guys do. If they can get there, to that place where they can pretend it’s all good, it almost is. Illiya’s buddies greet him with half-hugs and handshakes dodging the sparks popping up from the fire. The smell of campfire smoke used to make everything make sense to Illiya, gave him a sense that life was happening. Tonight it stings his throat.
‘You look nice tonight, Illiya.’ A girl named Jade slides into the crook of his arm. ‘Same as always, but nice with that white hat of yours. The only clean thing on you, as usual.’
‘Huh,’ Illiya manages, removing his arm to pull his hat down.
‘You’re always tugging at that thing,’ Jade re-hooks herself into his arm, her waxy perfume too much. ‘Kind of cowboy-like. I like it. I do.’
Illiya removes his arm again to take a swig of beer. In the blur of the fire everything looks as it always has except tonight it’s as though someone has turned the lights on. Exposed them all out here for what they really are – just a bunch of kids drunk in a field.
‘You’re quiet tonight,’ Jade says. ‘Don’t think too hard, baby.’ She brushes his arm as she walks away.
‘Yo, Illiya,’ Jer cups his shoulder, the girl in the red bikini now replaced by a typical Penticton girl – skin cancer tan, lit cigarette hovering between fluorescent-white tipped fingers. Jer looks across the fire.
Through the fire, Ivy sits in the back of an open truck bed, her hair falling over one shoulder like a foxtail. Dark red like cherry wood. She looks at Illiya, her eyelashes blinking their relaxed bat, then looks away. He doesn’t exist. He’s been shut out of his own life. Illiya walks away from the fire, kicking his beer bottle out into the field, and heads over to the shack at the edge of the tree line that burnt down when he was in high school. He unzips his fly and goes, looking over its scorched Blair Witch walls. He didn’t burn it down, but he did watch it burn. The wind jostles the trees with that same beaded shake as earlier, except this time it sounds like shhh… Like they’re telling him to shut the fuck up.
He can’t help but picture her naked. You can feel it when someone is beside you seeing things how you see them.
Back at the fire, a joint is being passed around. It swirls with the beer in Illiya’s head, blurs his thoughts. He chugs beer after beer. Lets the lukewarm poison numb his insides, lets it dissolve his misery like peroxide on a wound.
‘Hey man, you want to come quadding tomorrow?’ Jer is asking.
‘Yeah…’ Illiya can hear himself answering. He tries to grab onto this feeling of actually wanting to do something but the feeling dissipates into nothing like the rising ashes swirling above the fire. In the firelight, Illiya catches a flash of Ivy, a guy in a sweater standing too close to her smoking. She hates cigarettes.
The guy touches her face then slides a hand down her ass.
Illiya feels himself jumping through the fire. Feels his fists melding into steel.
‘Get him off!’ people are yelling as hands lift him off the ground.
Illiya looks down at his fists covered in blood.
Did he really jump through it? It felt like he did.
‘What was that?’ Ivy is screaming in his face. ‘What the fuck are you doing, Illiya?’
Illiya takes his hat off, leaving a red handprint along its white brim, the blood swelling to his knuckles. He backs away from her, spitting blood onto the ground, her skin glowing petal pink in the fire.
‘I don’t belong to you, Illiya. I never did.’
A few people stand and watch, the bloodied guy gone, dragged away.
‘I don’t want you anymore, Illiya. If that’s what you need to hear. I. Don’t. Want. You.’
The words echo into his pulsating knuckles as the fire lashes at her face. He knows why she said it this way. He can see her looking around for who’s looking, the words meant more for them.
It was the winter, not the summer, that ruined everything. So used to being unhappy, Illiya let himself worship Ivy in place of the sun, saw her as these few perfect images he couldn’t let go of. Pulling the covers over her soft shoulders, the way she would slide her hand up his leg when they were driving. Illiya lies on his basement cot, grateful for its damp chill against his wounds, his stomach ill from the bumpy ride home in the back of someone’s truck. His mind spins like a stuck tire. The guy’s face who he attacked lingers in a red blur. He messed him up. Badly. He’s pretty sure. He’s become a guy who hurts people. An attacker. He feels it hard now, this version of himself, and it hurts. Not the regret, the unchangeable fact of the man he’s grown into. Common. Unedcuated. A regular hothead. People say your personality is who you are most of the time. But the people here, they save themselves all year for summer. When you save yourself up long enough you’re bound to crack.
Illiya’s swollen fists bleed through the white towels wrapped around them, but his nerve endings have been shot for awhile. Falling into a thick sleep, Illiya wakes up to a crack at the window.
Ivy sliding down through the window like she used to, her ankles cracking as her feet hit the floor like bonfire sparks.
‘Illiya,’ she stands over him. She climbs into bed beside him, peach coolers on her breath, her hair musky with campfire. And he lets her lie there and hold his bandaged hand. She plays with his hair, puts a hand on his forehead.
‘You’re no good for me,’ she says.
Saturday and the desert blazes, the temperature a full 43 degrees by eight in the morning. Hardly any shade in the wide Penticton basin. Nowhere to hide. Turns people skittish like ants under a magnifying glass. Illiya drives Angelica to work for her early shift, stealing side glances to look for grey meth patches on her face, forgetting he’s the one who has wounds to cover up, Ivy’s scent still on his skin.
‘Happened to you last night?’ Angelica asks.
Illiya keeps quiet, knowing she won’t press it given the free ride. At this hour, only the old people are up, the snowbirds – southern desert in the winter, northern in the summer. They graze the donut window in the air-conditioning of Tim Horton’s, their faces fermented like wine, aged more by their religions than the sun, all that stored spite that they might end before the world, unlike what they’d been told for so long.
‘You gonna stop doing crystal?’ Illiya takes his eyes off the road.
‘I told you, Illiya, I’m not doing it anymore!’ Angelica stares at herself in the side mirror, her tanned arms crossed over her Dairy Queen t-shirt – white with a red heart made of the words: I LUV DQ I LUV DQ I LUV DQ…
At dawn Ivy left the way she came, kissing Illiya on the lips before hoisting herself back up the concrete wall.
‘I don’t trust you,’ Illiya tells his sister, turning into the Dairy Queen parking lot. Pulling into a space, he gives her the two-eyes-on-you gesture. ‘Now get out,’ he says.
‘Wait,’ Angelica jumps out of the truck. ‘Just wait a sec.’ She runs inside the store and returns with a large Oreo blizzard. ‘Thanks for the ride.’ She leans on the window frame. ‘Only a few months of summer and I’m stuck inside Winter Wonderland all day.’ She canters back inside taking a quick look to see if anyone has seen her go in. It’s the transition she doesn’t want them to see – the link between this self and the other.
Heading to work, balancing the cold cup against the steering wheel, Illiya leaves the windows down to let in the sauna-dry breeze, a hint of a faraway forest fire lacing the wind’s current – the scent of burned possibilities. He can’t picture Ivy in his bed last night, can’t indulge in that thought. Ivy’s like the pinnacle of summer, no matter what you do it always slips away.
The days get hotter, the town flattened by the sun, and no word from her. From the shore, in the white morning light, Illiya watches a young couple suntanning on the floating dock in their underwear, the only ones on the beach so early in the morning as the beach tractor combs the sand. Illiya walks over the freshly raked ridges, his wounds from that night thick and leathery with dried blood from not taking care of them, swollen, probably infected. Yesterday, in the river that runs the edge of town where people line up to float down in tubes and dingys, a body was fished from the water. One depressed winter body from months back. A few of them every year. Illiya pictures its grey, clammy skin covered in leaf mulch, limp like a dead fish. He walks down to the East side of the beach, the water scummy and green from the giant beached paddlewheel in the reeds. He used to wonder about the girl painted on its side, waving to another incoming paddlewheel from Sicamous in her old-fashioned bathing suit that covered her elbows and knees. He used to wonder if it wasn’t as hot back then for her to be so covered up. If it didn’t get a little hotter every year.
Jer, Brody, and Emery pull the boat around. Illiya gets into the water, still cold from night, and swims out to meet them, open beer cans already in the cupholders to drink off last night’s hangovers. After high school, Illiya slowed down but they all kept going, drinking five nights a week, their hockey six-packs padded with solid layers of gut now, their hairlines receding like the summer. Brody rips the boat across the lake. It lashes the water in hard slaps, its motor like a chainsaw. Brody Wooley used to wear wool sweaters to school almost every day in high school, the kind with the red rim around the collar like Levi’s socks. Proof of pre-destination, Illiya was convinced. Last summer, they worked together on an A frame house in Peachland, the hotter the day the less chance Brody would show, his dad’s boat too much temptation. Illiya usually wouldn’t let himself go. Last summer there was a sense in the breeze that something was going to happen. Illiya worked hard in the frame of that still roofless house under the hot sun almost every day, and at the end of summer when nothing out of the ordinary had happened he began to feel the disappointment – he’d waited too long. But then there were her white fingers stimulating every tip of his nerves through his scalp.
As the sun hits the top of the sky, the guys take turns on the wakeboard, lacerating the water along the boat’s choppy wake.
‘Heard you got in a tussle with Brett Holmes last weekend,’ Emery yells to Illiya over the wind, tossing him a beer from the bow of the boat. ‘Heard you messed up his face pretty bad.’
‘I lost it,’ Illiya admits.
Emery’s own record is far from clean, a pink scar across his right eye from a knife fight on Skaha beach last summer.
‘What is it with you and that girl?’ Emery shakes his head.
The way she never looks right at you.
The way she fits his body like a missing limb.
‘She’s not worth it,’ Jer cracks open a can of beer in the captain’s seat. ‘She’s fucking with you, man.’
‘That chick will fuck anything,’ Emery adds.
Laughter around the boat as Jer cuts the engine so Brody can pull himself in.
Illiya feels the blood pumping to his fists. The boat drifts parallel to the shore.
‘Now those chicks…’ Emery points to some faraway girls.
The beach by now has had enough time to form into its speckled mess of bright brand new plastic store-bought poppable things.
Illiya looks at the girls in their bikinis. It’s like eating ice. Nothing. Just nothing. He really doesn’t need the summer. He may have at one point, but he doesn’t anymore. The seasons are just a backdrop, just detail.
Buzzed from the sun off the water, Brody whips the boat around in figure eights, the boys yelling for him to go harder ‘until someone falls out.’
On the porch steps – white, but not the white they were before – greyer, a cloud white, Illiya trips over an empty Dairy Queen cup.
‘Nate gone for the day?’ he asks Kiara who swings on the white bench in a pile of Archies.
‘Gone,’ she says, clearing some Archies off the bench for Illiya to sit.
‘Strange guy.’ Illiya sits, taking off his hat, his hair knotted like rope from the boat ride.
‘He’s just depressed,’ Kiara says.
‘What do you know about depression?’ Illiya laughs.
What would his twelve year old sister know about sadness not worth expressing?
‘Where’s mom?’ Illiya asks.
‘At the Elvis festival in town. I tried to tell her about worshipping false idols. Told her she’ll lose her reservation in the 144 000 witnesses going to Heaven.’
Illiya grabs his sister’s head and messes up her already greasy, tangled hair. ‘What’s that?’ he asks.
On Kiara’s lower stomach is a red raised scar, the word NO etched into her skin.
Kiara pulls her shirt down. ‘It was a dare,’ she says. ‘My friends and I.”
‘Why NO?’ Illiya asks.
‘Just… no. You know… Like ‘fuck it’. Refusal. Defiance.’
‘Don’t do that to yourself anymore,’ Illiya tells her. ‘Don’t wreck your body.’
‘Look at you, trainwreck,’ Kiara looks down at Illiya’s destroyed knuckles. ‘My poor sad brother…’ She shakes his hand as if they’re meeting for the first time.
‘You’re twelve,’ Illiya reminds his sister.
‘I’m a person,’ she says. ‘Just like you.’
Illiya goes down to take a shower, having agreed to meet the guys for pints at the dreaded Nite Moves – girls doing body shots off each other in front of guys with muscle cleavage. But tonight anything is better than himself. Illiya makes a point of putting on his same dirty work clothes, smelling them to make sure they’re halfway decent, then puts on his white hat out of the dishwasher – four trips to rinse out the blood.
‘I don’t want to hear it!’ The backdoor opens, his mother carrying a full load of groceries, Kiara trailing behind.
‘Funny,’ Kiara says, her feet black with dirt, ‘how all the messiahs since ancient Egypt were born of a virgin, died on the cross, then resurrected for three days.’
‘Kiara, get out of my hair and go sweep the floor. By the looks of your feet, it needs it.’
Kiara gets the broom. ‘Fine. I like sweeping,’ she says. ‘It makes me feel like a peasant girl.’
‘Illiya,’ his mother spots him. ‘I need you to mow the lawn. I’m having a Kingdom Hall meeting here on Wednesday…’
‘Later,’ Illiya says.
‘It would be nice if you’d come.’ His mother unloads a bag of tomatoes. ‘If you accepted His word you wouldn’t be so down all the time.’
Kiara sticks out her tongue and clamps it with her teeth.
‘I’d rather learn from life,’ Illiya says.
‘What you’ve learned is in the past,’ his mother reaches into the fridge. ‘The future is yet to come, Illiya.’
‘You mean the mass floods and the slaughter of anyone who doesn’t go to your church?’ Kiara blurts out.
‘You have no faith,’ his mother says. ‘Neither of you.’
How can you have faith when you live in a place of ups and downs, highs and lows, hots and colds? A place of no consistency. Untrustworthy.
A rainbow of lights assaults Illiya’s white hat among shouted, beat-fuelled conversations. At a stand-up table, Illiya’s buddies shell out twenties on rounds of Jaggerbombs, Jer swaying like a sawed Douglas fir.
‘That’s what I’m talking about…’ Emery leans back to check out a passing girl’s ass.
Illiya turns to face the dancefloor, letting his full beer bottle sweat on the table. As much as he’d like to think he sees through this town, the truth is he rarely thinks beyond it, the sun sedating his imagination, the mountains blocking him from looking too far. The deafening music does its job of drowning out any incoming thoughts, like he hoped it would. He looks around – the same bright brand new colours of City Beach glowing blue in the orb of the black lights. Gyrating, vodka-guzzling kids trying to squeeze every last drop out of their summers. Their summers, they really see it this way. Across the dancefloor, among the girls grinding up against each other, Illiya spots Ivy, her head tipped against another girl’s. They’re kissing. Eyes closed, hoop earrings colliding under the relentless thud of the beat.
Illiya sits back. It’s possible that everything he knows about the seasons is wrong. The season can change at any moment – each entirely different than the next, the slate clearing with each breath. Clear. Clear… Illiya’s head flings forward from a hard pound on the back.
‘Wake up kid!’ Jer puts his arm around Illiya. ‘Drink your beer, queer.’
They haven’t seen Ivy. They’re too drunk. Illiya looks back at her, a group of guys gathered around her now, getting in on the action. This was all for them. Wasn’t it? ’I'm out,’ Illiya stands, raising a hand to the guys.
‘It’s midnight,’ Jer blocks him with his barrel chest.
‘Well, I’m peacing out.’
‘Being a good boy?’ Jer asks, that look of paranoia coming through his eyes despite the full day of drinking, so drunk he’s looped back around to sober. ‘You think you’re better than us, bro?’
If it wasn’t for Ivy leaving him, Illiya would never have been able to see how similar to the people here he’d become.
‘You’re wasted,’ Illiya walks away. Head down, hands in his pockets, he exits the lined-up club, Jer too drunk to trail him. Main Street is abuzz with drunk kids singing loudly and smoking, parked cop cars waiting for the bars to close so they can snag the drunkest of the drunk. Outside the entrance, Ivy leans against the wall pressed against some guy. She’s cloned, everywhere at once like in a dream. The guy has a thick arm around her waist, a tattoo rising from the white collar of his shirt. A diamond stud from his earlobe gleams under the Nite Moves sign.
Illiya keeps walking.
Ivy calls his name.
He keeps walking.
She slips away from and starts walking after him.
‘Look, I get it, okay?’ he keeps his pace. ‘Anyone except me. I get it.’
‘I don’t want to hurt you, babe…’ Ivy drunkenly warbles, her unthinkable beauty dimmed by her generic words.
Illiya looks both ways before crossing the one-way street. No main street can only go one way, he decides. The whole notion of gathering, mulling – one-way streets can’t provide this. This town was built with no centre.
On the street corner, Ivy touches his shoulder. ‘I do want you,’ she wavers into him.
He looks into her eyes, speckled like Olive Lake, a lake the deepest shade of green that no one can swim in. Stepping onto the crosswalk, he leaves her standing in the street.
The sidewalks chug like train tracks under Illiya’s large steps, radiating the day’s heat back up to him. ‘Thank God it’s over,’ he says to himself, quietly. But around here, it’s never really over. There is no point at which you can stop and relax. Always a winter coming, just breaks in between.
In the dark, the old house shines white against the starlit sky, though Nate has only finished one side, the white just a false front. Illiya quietly unlocks the door to not wake anyone up, but a light is on in the kitchen. Pieces of a broken lemonade glass lie shattered down the hall like thrown jacks. Illiya crunches over the glass. At the oak table Illiya’s mother and his sisters sit in the kitchen’s blinding light, a sheen across their foreheads from the hot night, a pathetic fan in the corner spreading the heat, the empty brown paper grocery bags piled at their feet like boulders from Frank Slide.
‘Your sister’s pregnant,’ his mother says, a sour exhaustion across her face.
Illiya looks at Angelica, black tracks of mascara running down her California girl cheeks.
‘When the fall comes, you’ll have to put your shoes on,’ his mother’s eyes lie in slits. ‘Then it won’t be so funny anymore.’
Illiya looks at Angelica’s feet, toes painted pink to match her flip flops, the blueberry pie plate cut across her baby toe. Kiara tucks her dirty feet under her chair, a band of red along her nose and cheeks.
‘I will kill that man,’ his mother slaps the table, swivelling the cherry bowl. ‘You’ll have to fish his body from the river.’
‘It’s not his fault,’ Kiara says, her eyes shaky against her mother’s.
The NO on Kiara’s stomach: Nate Olsen.
‘You’ll get rid of it,’ Illiya’s mother stands, knocking back her chair.
‘What – and stop a beating heart? A living soul?’
‘What have I done to my children?’ Illiya’s mother rubs her face.
‘Leave me out of it.’ Angelica runs upstairs.
‘You’re addicted to that junk!’ Illiya’s mother calls after her.
‘It helps me get stuff done!’ Angelica slams the door to her room.
Illiya looks at Kiara, her face and hands so small at the large wooden table.
The back door slams as his mother storms off, swinging back open behind her like an entering ghost.
‘Did he rape you?’ Illiya stares down his sister.
‘No,’ Kiara says. ‘It was a mistake, Illiya. I don’t love him or anything.’
‘So what are you gonna do, Ki?’ He sits down at the table. ‘Soon it’ll be fall and you’ll have to go back to school. What are you gonna do then?’
Kiara twists a cherry stem in her mouth, tying it into a knot and spitting it into her palm. She stares at it, then stares into the sour wisdomless faces of the beheaded old maids. ‘I’ll kill it,’ she decides. ‘Before it becomes a person.’
In the muggy kitchen, crane flies from the open back door buzz up near the SAD light unable to fight the urge to immolate themselves against its brightness, and Illiya sits with his sister in the muggy kitchen before fall infuses the air and time is up.
April 11, 2010
The following short story was originally published, by Twenty3Magazine.
‘Lighted souvenirs?’ she drones, sauntering through the flashing casino. Fishnet stockings, tuxedo leotard – she almost pulls it off. Could have twenty years ago. She slithers toward the cards tables adorned with glow-in-the-dark this and that, a heavy tray of lit-up goodies strapped around her neck – glow sticks, magic wands, trinkets blinking neon. ‘Lighted souvenirs?’ she offers them, the guests – those who celebrate while she slaves.
She’s lived in Vegas for years. Made a living off the bright lights. Slept during the days, partied at night. Now an overtold joke, Vegas used to at least make her laugh. Still she keeps at it everyday. Plays the slots. Drinks her Scotch. Tries to behave.
Everyday they build it up: The Strip. How appropriate. It does just this. Takes it all off.
Stripping had been her ride to the top. Thank God she’d had the body for it. Helped that she drank her meals and smoked her desserts. The booze gave her the nerve to get onstage, the cigarettes rewards for being brave. Nowadays, her job is to make her guests feel at home here at The Stardust, even though she wishes they were. They just keep coming. Never leave. And it never, ever stops. It’s true what they say: the city never sleeps.
She can’t sleep either. Hasn’t for months. Takes a catnap here and there, ten, twenty minutes, then her body jolts awake, eyes pop open, spine snaps up. No rest.
She glides through the ruffle of the spinning slots at the end of her shift and punches out. It’s noon, time for bed. She heads to her suite on Floor Nineteen. Sits on the bed, looks out the window. Thick pings of the ice cubes dropping into her Scotch. She swishes it around in small sips – eye twitching, stockings itching. When she sleeps, when she really sleeps, is when she takes off her clothes and stands naked in front of the window for all of Vegas to see. When she shows them who she is. What she was. What she could have been. She sleeps then for hours and wakes up sometimes feeling almost alright. Not today. Today she will strip for no one.
On days like this she heads downtown away from strip, back to old school Vegas. She puts on more make up on top of the old stuff that’s worn off. It’s always doing that, sliding away in the heat. She smears on cover up under the bathroom’s red heat light with a dirty sponge. Cakes it on. The thicker, the better. Now the eyes. Damsel Discobeat eyeshadow for class, Moroccan-orange blush for sass. She look in the mirror. Stuff never does what it’s supposed to. Crappy junk. Still she doesn’t like to take it off. Although it does come off, sometimes, late at night, when she sneaks into the pool alone. She leaves it on while she swims, oily streaks of purple and orange chasing her, an eye out for security guards. She never lets them come too close. Even though she doesn’t care what they think.
The Vegas heat hurts as she steps outside. Sizzles up at her from the pavement like a rattler. She staggers down the sidewalk like she’s already drunk in her too-tight hot pink heels. Five naked asses joined at the hips moon her on the tail of a taxi as it sails past. She lifts a sagging arm to flag it down. It pulls over. She shovels herself inside
Billboards shout into the car: Girls, Girls, Girls. Live Young Girls.
‘I used to be a ripper.’ She tells the cabby.
‘Uh huh,’ the cabbie mutters, tilting the rear view mirror away.
She tries not to look out the window. The air-conditioning stings her eyes.
The old Las Vegas is empty today, every day. A few sad hot streets left behind. “Here,” she tells the cabbie nowhere in particular. She chucks a ten at his head on her way out.
She looks around. Can’t decide which one today. Nude Girls Daily. Girls: Barely 18. Girls. Little bitches only. No women. The downtown heat swarms her fast. Overheated after only a few minutes in the sun, she steps into a Seven Eleven and eyes the newsstand from from behind her eyeliner. Picks up a copy of The Daily Star and teeters to the counter, her high-heels too steep, gnarling her toes.
‘Pack of Camels, too,’ she says, eyeing a VLT at the front of the store. ‘And ten bucks of quarters.’
She slouches onto the stool ignoring her reflection in the glowing screen and pops in the quarters with last month’s fake nails. She’s played this one before. No win. No win. No win.
She goes to stand, falling off her heel, grabs her purse, and stumbles next door to a place called The Cave. Her kind of place. Dark, almost empty. No girls on stage. No girls at all.
‘Can I getcha?’ asks the bartender, his blue eyes on the empty stage.
She lights a smoke. Drink in hand, she flips through the pages. Worthless fools. Nobodies. Madonna – she’s about this close to washing up. It’ll all come crumbling down. Same story for this Spears – fake ditz with her glamour and glitz. They’ll get what’s coming to them. They’ll see. She orders another drink. At the end of the bar sits a handsome young man who deals blackjack at The Stardust. She takes her ashtray and slides over next to him. ‘You work at The Stardust, don’t ya?’
‘Sure do. How d’ya guess?’ He takes a sip of his beer, his gaze on the corner TV. Big brass belt buckle, blonde moustache, hairy arms.
‘Work there myself,’ she says, exhaling smoke the way she learned to – like you’re blowing a kiss.
He nods, looks around. ‘Speaking of I reckon I’m due for a shift.’ He tucks in his stool, slaps some cash on the bar, and flicks her a nod as he leaves.
‘I sure don’t bite,’ she says to her drink.
But he’s long gone. Cheesy jerk. She orders a shot of vodka, downs it, and steps into the burn.
It’s dizzy hot out. She grabs onto a bus stop bench for balance. The couple sitting on it leans away.
‘Matter?’ she spits. ‘Never seen an old woman before?’
She hates the term. Never wanted it to come to this. She wonders if she could still sell her body. Maybe she could – give them more for less. She smiles at the thought. No. She doesn’t do that anymore. She’s a lady now. She pulls out her compact and puts on more lipstick – pink to match the sun.
She decides to walk back to The Strip. She wants to see the transition between the old and the new. Wants to feel it. In the baking heat her high-heels draw blood from the backs of her heels. She could take them off but the sidewalk would scorch her feet. How would a lady walk? Back straight, small steps. She can do that. What would a lady do? Go for a nice drink at one of those fancy hotels. She’s good enough for those dumps. She’s what made Vegas what it is today. Shouldn’t she get to enjoy it?
She breathes in the air like nicotine. The Bellagio, the MGM Grand, the Venetian – parties she’s never had the nerve to crash. Maybe she’d fit in there as a lady. A lady on her way to have a nice drink.
Parched, she nears Casear’s Palace. In the gel of tourists, no one steps aside for her. Lousy rich folk. Hussies. Spoiled brats. She hangs her head down to the sidewalk cracks – littered flyers of naked women strewn over the ground. A deep thirst shrivels her throat. She needs that drink.
Her purse slides off her shoulder and its contents scatter. Too tired to bend down and pick them up, she lets them roll into the gutter. A white limo pulls up beside her. A starlet steps out, wrapped in glitter, head held high, and takes someone’s hand. Cameras snap as people crowd around. Her bodyguards form a shield.
‘Tramp!’ she calls out as loud as she can.
The star turns, selling her stunning smile.
The star pretends not to hear.
She spits in the star’s direction. It hits the bottom of her leg.
Ladies don’t spit she realizes too late.
The star bends to wipe her leg as her bodyguards encircle the star and the crowd encircles the bodyguards. She’s shut out, left to wither in the sun. It can’t beat her. She knows it too well. Just when you think it will, it fizzles out. Fast.
As night finally drizzles down and the blue-bright lights start to blink leftover heatwaves steam up from the pavement. Just one drink. That’s what she came here for.
The walkway of The Bellagio stares her down with its perfect curves and soft yellow lights. No. She’s too tired. Too hot. Too damn thirsty to go in there. She crosses the street to a small souvenir store and buys a bottle of water for fifty cents. Takes a sip, then pours the rest over her hot bleeding feet. She disappears down a slim sideway between buildings, looking up at the lights to find her way. Never could get a good picture of them at night. Always foggy and streaked like a photograph of a ghost. She spots an old ladder beside an overflowing dumpster and reaches up on its rungs.
She starts to climb.
Up one story, two. She drops a heel – lousy knockoff piece of crap. She keeps climbing. She’s never felt this high before, except in her suite on the nineteenth floor. She flings off the other shoe. The pain subsides. Her stomach jitters. She watches her toes to make sure they don’t betray her.
On the roof there’s a sign lit so bright her eyes hurt. She’s too close to read what its bulbs spell. She reaches out to touch one of the blazing lights. It burns her. Melts the print off her fingers. ‘Damn it,’ she curses.
She takes off her sleeveless blouse and wraps it around her hand. Freshly bandaged, she tries again. The bulb dims in her hand as she unscrews it. But nothing else happens. She hasn’t been electrocuted or anything. Dead bulb in hand, she squeezes it firmly. As hard as she can.
It doesn’t break.
She steps to the edge, barefoot and topless, her blouse around her hand like a boxing glove, the lights a nighttime desert rainbow, and looking down onto the people-clogged streets, at the vermin so crammed-in they can barely move, she drops the bulb and watches it fall.
A hole emerges in the crowd.
‘What do you know?’ she smiles.
The next one she tosses overhead like a baseball. Waits for a gap to appear.
‘Lighted Souvenirs?’ she sings.
April 6, 2010
“The Luxury of Negative Thought”
On the mountain the sky is red, turned inside out. But though it’s red out there, it’s grey all around you, as though you’re standing at the opening of the sky.
“What button?” Potia asks over the wind, leaned back and gravitating in her camping chair. You’ve always admired her ability to appear relaxed almost anywhere.
You adjust the setting of the camera for her, and position yourself at the furthest point of the edge before freefall, loose jagged rocks like those of an undiscovered planet at your feet, the wind fighting itself so hard in each direction that it feels as though you’ve stepped into a portal. “Do a pan,” you yell.
Portia scans the blood sky, then lands on you. “Tells us about the future, Clarke!”
“We’re in it,” you shout. “We are the revolution.” And you laugh, because at some point everything is funny.
“Isn’t the revolution dead? Haven’t they tried that already?”Portia prompts you.
“The revolution is calling louder than ever. Just because the media doesn’t cover it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”
“How’s it going to go down?”Portia asks. “What’s gonna happen?”
“We’re going to take it all back.” You grab a fistful of wind. “Put the power back into the hands of the people.”
“And… cut.” Portia gives you back the camera. “How was?”
“Well, you kept turning the camera around so it will look like I’m in a vortex. But it works.”
You sit side by side on the peak of the rocky slope, the sweat from the hike chilling your spines as the sun turns its back on you. Portia gets it. She knows what it’s like to fall from a high place. To wake up one day to realize that the belief that you were special was what was holding you back the most – entire libraries of your lives burned to the ground while you weren’t watching. You’ve known each other since high school when your shared binocular view of life was through teen movies and mall-bought trends, and you didn’t yet grasp that in the real world work would take up the time with which you had assumed you would live out your dreams.
“Have you ever had flow?” Portia asks over the wind. “I must have had it at some point, because I know I don’t have it now.”
“I’ve felt it,” you say. “But I wouldn’t know how to harvest it.”
You take a moment to breathe in the speedboat wind, then scream into the red void of the apocalyptic sky – wisp-white trenches of clouds feathering the mountain’s base, a midnight blue oozing through its slits – a rippled, horror movie scream. You hold it for as long as you can, a carnival bell sledge-hammered inside you to the maximum height of your pain-turned-pleasure.
As it gets darker, you start down the slope.
You’re painting a 7X7 foot canvas of a crumbling city skyline made entirely of boulders when Portia calls to tell you she accidentally had sex with a stranger at Wal*Mart.
“I just wanted to do something adventurous.” She justifies, describing the average guy she met on the C-Train after work.
You continue painting, offering unobtrusive support: uh-huh, hmm, yeah, because none of this surprises you. Whereas you usually keep your crazy within the lines, Portia tends to waver over them like a drunk driver.
“Okay, okay,” you tell her. “You’ll get through it. No worries.”
Miracle they didn’t get busted by some Wal*Mart god above, evidence that perhaps there is no one at the top after all.
“ I can’t trust myself,” Portia says. “Who am I?”
“Let’s hang out,” you offer. You know the feeling of being physically disgusted with yourself.
“I’m going to sleep for a week.”
“I don’t think so, Snow White.”
It always comes to this – you pretending to be the rock. The time Portia found the injured squirrel and tried to keep it as a pet. Lucid, she named it. The time she smashed in the windshield of her ex-boyfriend’s truck with his snowboard. The time she drove drunk and totalled her car in the Bow River, conveniently yet authentically losing her part of her memory due to head injury. The only reason you keep your cool is that you know on a fundamental level that if you ever fell apart she couldn’t help you. Otherwise, you might be tempted.
“Better get dressed,” you tell Portia, rinsing off your paintbrush and inspecting your unfinished collapsing city.
You step into the winter sunset, the Calgary air stung with ice though it’s only mid-October. You remember when you realized you were from a cold place. That no one - especially not you – can escape the toll that four seasons does to a person’s emotions. They say your personality is who you are most of the time. Most of the time, this city is winter. You avoid eye contact with all young men on the C-Train to avoid a similar fate, then shoplift Portia some Mango Soft Eating Licorice from a convenience store. In high school, you and Portia used to steal 5 cent candies by hiding them in your slurpees, the candies no longer gummy but frozen hard when you would scoop them out with your spoon-straws, but tasting better because they were free. Since you’ve known each other, your cells have entirely regenerated twice.
Portia answers the door in hot-pink legwarmers, zigzagged shorts, an off-the-shoulder grey hooded sweatshirt, and an electric-blue sweatband, a tub of blood-orange gelato in her white mittened hands.
“Is this dressed?” You toss her the licorice.
The walls of Portia’s place are a green the shade poisonous slugs offset by chunks of seventies flare: a beaded curtain, an orange plastic chair, macramé wall hangings . She calls it: retro-metro psychedelic funk; you call it “splash of clash”. There is no kitchen table. You suspect this may be the missing anchor in Portia’s life, though you don’t have one either.
“It’s eating licorice,” you tell her. “As opposed to the other type.”
“He reminded me of that guy from that movie,” Portia explains. “Except not as smart. Or special. He was listening to his Ipod and it was annoying me. How he could just sit there and ignore me and be so politely fucking Canadian. So I took out one of his earphones. With my tongue.” She dives onto an unburstable exercise ball, shooting across the room to hide her face, yet landing in front of a full-length mirror. “I’m ugly,” she says, a tube of licorice out the side of her mouth like a dental suction tube.
“You’re a star,” you tell her, sketching a waterfall on the whiteboard above her phone. “Now, let’s go be famous.”
Portia paces her living room, through the dead people’s things scavenged during thrift store breakdowns – ceramic pantomime clowns, German coo-coo clocks, and a framed black velvet 3D owl picture you date back to the great spree of April ’07.
“What do you have in mind?” Portia emerges from the bedroom in a gold satin jacket, still no pants.
“Nothing,” you say. “We’re going to do very ordinary things in a very exciting way. Like usual.”
Portia finally decides to put on pants in the middle of the parking lot, or rather, leggings designed to look like painted on skinny jeans. Better than nothing, but not by much. The Fox & Feather sign sizzles down like cancer, at least one in every town – a Disney-stolen fox with a green Robin Hood hat smiling down his toothy smile (“Robin, you’re so imeptuous!” you remember Maid Marian saying.) Corporate anonymity is alluring tonight. A dense fog full of secrets laps at the white parking stall lines, rolled in from another land, or pollution. You leave cookie cutter prints in the light layer of snow. “It takes so long to find something you want…” you say, mostly to yourself. “Then when you find it, as soon as you want it too much it turns the situation sour.”
“You’re harshing my buzz,” Portia says.
“I want a man with some class,” you elaborate. “I want it old school. Give me a gentleman!”
“That’s not very anarchist of you,” Portia says, heaving open the wooden pub door.
“Just because I reject being confined within a machine-like system, does that mean I have to sacrifice chivalry?”
You trek through the aromatherapy of spilt beer and chipotle mayo to find a booth in the back, expired heavy metal placating what would otherwise be near silence, guys in jeans their wives bought for them talking about sports they don’t have the energy to play. At some point in your life, people began to disappear. The subjects of conversations so base, so preliminary that you’d already dissected them on every angle years ago. Maybe it wasn’t them who disappeared, but you.
“Two Foxy Pints,” Portia tells the waitress – UV tan, spray-on French manicure, small cracks of sadness already lining her young eyes.
You align the camera on its tripod, trying to find the right angle.
“Clarke, I’m not really feeling the drama today.” Portia slides down the ripped green vinyl booth back. At first, she didn’t want to be a part of it at all, but eventually she began to realize how it makes everything matter just a little more.
“Drama,” you greet the camera. “Have you ever noticed how it’s those who reject it who are the ones who create it? No drama, everyone claims to want. So Top 40.”
A moment of dead air while Portia grinds her jaw at you.
“Don’t be a Debbie Downer, Clarke,” Portia finally comes through. “Be an Uma Upper.” “Debbie Downer,” she does a clown frown, then smiles, “Uma Upper!”
“How about Bitter Betty? She’s always fun.” You focus in on yourself, then her. “What’s wrong with drama? Is any intense emotion I feel drama?”
“Okay, cut!” Portia says. “This is boring me.”
You have a moment of crumbling boulder city.
“If you’re bored, you’re boring,” you reply.
A few guys at the bar have noticed that you’re filming now. They watch you as an option c) to the hockey or basketball on the corner TVs.
“Don’t you want to be a star?” you ask Portia, camera still rolling. “Because you’re always a star as long as – above anything else – you just want people to know you.”
“I thought the most intriguing people were good listeners who didn’t ask questions.”The waitress delivers the beers, glancing at the camera and wondering if she should tell you to turn it off. She doesn’t want any drama.
“Where the fuck did you hear that?” you ask. “No. The most terrifying thing of all is being a legend in your own mind,” you cheers Portia’s unwilling glass.
“That’s assuming there’s another type of legend to be.” She says.
“Friends,” you face the camera. “Have you ever felt deliriously lost? Because there’s nothing like it.” You hand the waitress a spoon as a microphone. “Why not enjoy every second of life? It’s all one big pile of shit…” You read her name tag and look forward to the rhyme, “…Brit.”
Brit uses her tray as a shield against the camera.
Portia winks and nods at the camera in a seductive Wal*Marty way.
You can never trace what wins her over.
“If every thought brings us closer to Heaven or Hell,” you gather momentum, “then can we ever afford the luxury of a negative thought?”
The barstool men have turned to face you now, curious about the camera. A few women, too, in Costco sweaters and bunny-tested hairspray.
“Maybe it’s healthy to lose your mind,” you offer. “Maybe sometimes you need to have sex at Wal*Mart. Price-dropping falling star sex.”
Portia eyes you with contempt. “Sometimes the pain starts to eat you alive,” she both replies and changes the subject. “Or do we eat the pain..? Run on it like a non-efficient fuel.”
“What show is this?” you overhear a man say behind you. “What channel is this for?”
“Maybe we can afford more than we think,” Portia suggests. “Maybe luxury is being able to relax.”
“I like it,” you agree. “You’re hurting my brain. Let’s get a second opinion.” You unscrew the camera from its tripod. The illusion of flow in video – the flow only ever present once it’s watched.
“Young sir,” you approach a guy playing pool – ironic mullet, slacker flannel shirt, little to no mystery. You shine the soft camera light on his face. “What is your darkest secret?” you ask him over the tap dance of the billiard balls.
“Excuse me?” he holds his pool cue at his side like a spear, like a stranded schoolboy gone rabid after a shipwreck, making him suddenly almost irresistibly hot.
A small crowd has formed around you now, about 10 or 12 people.
“Hey…” the pool guy says, as Portia joins you. “Aren’t you those girls?”
It’s a strange sensation, being recognized by someone you’ve never met. You have no idea what you they know.
“Portia and Clarke,” he says. “You have two hundred thousand views on You Tube.”
“Internet killed television,” you smile, shifting his pool cue towards him as a mic. “Now, can you define luxury apart from the accumulation of material objects…?” You fish for his name.
“Bradley. Two hundred thousand people watching you every day. Huh.”
“Now they’re watching you, too, babe.” Portia grabs his pool cue and sets up a shot.
You film her. She doesn’t sink it.
“I watch it. I mean, I’ve watched it, sometimes,” Bradley says.
You’ve become a guilty pleasure. Someone’s waste of time.
“I don’t mean to sound critical,” he continues to hijack the interview. “But, what makes you think you’re worth paying attention to? I mean, above other people.”
“Nothing,” you reply. “We’re narcissistic, like everyone else.”
Portia rolls the balls into the pockets with her hands, one by one.
“It’s more difficult than you think,” you tell the world, “finding a single real moment.”
“Is she famous?” you hear a woman ask.
“Never seen her before in my life,” a man answers.
When you got wrecked (the best term you’ve found to describe it), when the person who made life worth living to you decided that you weren’t this person to him, you stopped caring – about anything anymore. He took the world with him. But on camera, it didn’t matter if anyone loved you, as long as you were seen. And it also didn’t matter if you loved who was watching, a dimension of melded fiction and non a safe, whimsical, eternal bubble.
“I liked that mountain shot the other day. ‘Ahhhh!’” Bradley mimics you screaming. “But I don’t… really think there’s going to be a revolution,” he admits, his movements a little different now, snagged by the camera’s man-eating draw. “Things just aren’t that bad,” he says. To the camera, not you.
In the limelight, his hotness changes colour. Turns a limegreen shade of hollow.
“Aren’t they?” You turn the camera to yourself. “Because I can’t help but notice that you’re here.” You do a pan of the small surrounding crowd and hope they don’t take it personally, then film Portia as she climbs onto the pool table and flops back onto its green felt like a field of wildflowers, her hoodie pulled down around her eyes. “It’s okay, I can afford it,” she gives you a thumbs up.
Since no one is harassing her for being a disturbance, you climb up, too, and stand above her to get the downward shot. And then, like a changed channel, the manager is approaching in his rolled up sleeves. To seek and destroy the drama.
“The revolution will not be televised”, you tell the camera. “Or was it: the television will not be revolutionized?”
“Ma’am…” The manager penetrates the bubble as you jump down. Portia stays put.
“Excuse me, Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to-”
Portia screams at full volume. A red sky scream. And it pierces and pierces and stabs.
A tsunami of panic douses the Fox and Feather. You feel your own abs clench, your air go. You try to steady the camera.
She then looks up at you and laughs because she knows you think it’s gold. Why she keeps laughing is up for debate.
“He told me I had an ass like a stripper,” she says. “And you know what? That was better than the sex. That, was everything to me.”
The manager whips out his Blackberry – disgusted, professional, furious.
And Portia starts to cry, tears striping her peachy cheeks.
Bradley looks down at her in male horror, then at you. At the camera.
He should be thanking you. Through you, he will see his soul if he chooses to look, then keep it for as long as he likes. Reality is never real until you capture it – every other moment as good as disposable, gone as soon as it happens.
Tears drip off Portia’s face and onto the green felt.
You put the camera down.
March 3, 2010
April 7, 2009
The Back Room
“…the North American dream. What it’s become…”
Willa, table five, Jessica says instead of hello, tapping at the computer screen like she’s trying to scare fish in a tank, her blonde hair tied back into a pokey French braid, her white eyeliner beautiful and scary.
And we have a staff wine tasting tomorrow, are you coming? she asks.
I consider a way to tell her that I place wine connoisseurship in the same category as marriage and the economy – Things That Only Exist In Our Minds.
You’re out of it today, Jessica cuts off my dial-up speed search for words, looking at me like a toothbrush dropped onto the floor of a Super 8.
Can I use your ‘puter? A stray little girl tries to hijack the screen.
Trust me kid, I look down at her, you start pushing their buttons, soon they’ll be pushing yours.
It’s a touch-screen, she corrects me, wandering back to her Blackberry engulfed mother at a nearby table.
The restaurant is full. Pleasant conversations among stylish salt and pepper shakers set to poor Norah Jones stuck on a gerbil wheel of her four greatest hits. The usual designer consignment store clad West Van crew with their complaints that the focaccia bread tastes like it was run through the dishwasher, being placated by servers with efficiently clenched hearts and brows clamped into punctuation marks that may in the end cost more to correct than the tips they’re clamping them for.
Marcel stands behind the bar polishing a wine glass and singing: Ten percent, every now and then I get a little bit more but it always evens out to ten percent … to the tune of Total Eclipse of the Heart , his classic Timmy from Lassie grown-up, golden boy looks a dead match for his show tune warbling.
Here, he hands me a MasterCard. Will-a you ring this through for me?
I take the card and for a guilty flash understand how those shady identity theft circles get started – plastic so much more relaxing to steal than an armoured car.
Willa, table two. Jessica Tasmanian-Devils by. And table seven.
Since I moved out of the rentals’ house – a childhood of Calgary winters I thought were cozy because I was always sheltered from them – life’s changed. Every moment based on tasks completed for money, when you break it down. Money doesn’t buy happiness? Well it does buy the backdrops on which happiness is set. The costumes, the lighting, the props. So: how do I fuel my life? Oil not the only resource up for ethical debate. If serving West Van retirees clinging to their dropping Canadian dollars and deadweight property investments is not a sustainable fuel source, then what is?
I greet my tables with plasticine smiles and free eye contact, wondering how I would prefer to be interacting with them. If I would like to know more about them than whether they want fries or salad, or if I would prefer to simply be a few hundred pages on their bedside tables, my Master’s in English Lit from UBC growing bacteria, not the Activia kind.
Table seven, an old chap from the yacht club and his lipstick-outside-the-lines wife, claps for me as I arrive to take their drink order.
Do you know what it says on the waitress’s gravestone? the cap’n asks, possibly threatening my life. It says better late than never, but never late is better, he says, pleased with himself.
Are you sure you want to take this crap?
Now, he says to his wife. What do you want, dear?
She opens her menu and takes out a small magnifying glass.
I used to think glamour would save me. Large sunglasses, heels, a daily shining sun, and a thousand cameras recording my every move. Then I realized I live in Canada. Warmth and paparazzi challenged Canada. The true North strong and free, not the true North breezy and current. So I gave the dream up. A dream based on colouring books that asked: Where Do We Go When We Die? (my drawn answer: myself on a director’s chair yelling “cut!”, the Hollywood Hills in the background). A dream based on board games where the players had to choose ratios of Love, Money, and Fame for their faux futures, my choice – all fame. Now, in between dreams like Jack Johnson – I’m blank. My mind, shaken clear like an Etch-a-Sketch, ironically forcing me to empathize with ex-boyfriends who swore: “I don’t know what I want.”
Excuse me, Miss – is the Fraser Valley Pork Loin braised? What does it come with? Can I substitute greens instead? Willa, table three. Could I get more coffee? Do you take American Express? That’s funny, the cap’n lowers his arm, for a moment I thought my hand was broken.
In the xylophone of polished cutlery against white plates, I split into a thousand shards, a three-way mirror fantasy world militia of myself. Pour, lift, wipe, ask, write, type, count, pour, lift – ouch, hot. Try to carve a piece of mental real estate for myself out of this noise, a hundred and six TV channels, and an internet of colourful blog opinions and pictures of celebrities with bottomless closets and theft-proof identities. I try to find some clarity among the impatient glances of my customers (the only flashbulbs trailing me, for now), the gradually comprehended reality that they aren’t the only ones here escalating their appetites into an insatiable me-want-cookie hunger. Maybe I should have told them the truth about the Fraser Valley Pork Loin. That it may or may not be diced with bits of murder victims and dead prostitutes. Pigs will eat anything.
Are you sure you want the thoughts that come in the quiet of clarity?
From the hostess stand, my manger, Rick, gives me a bureaucratic come hither gesture in his pretty-boy meringue dress shirt and old-world spiffy pinstripe suspenders that indicate he’s not afraid to snap those bad boys against his chest a few times. What’s with the skate shoes, Willa? he asks.
I look down at my shiny black skate shoes, sheer black nylons and a sleek black skirt helping to blend them into obscurity. Shoes of compromise. I will forfeit my individuality if you will only permit me a cushiony sole.
We’re not turning ollies at the skate park here, Willa, Rick says, drunk off authority, rolling on it like a tab of ecstasy; it grinds his jaw.
Rick, come on, don’t be a dictator, I say, printing a bill. And don’t be the first part of the word either, I mumble.
Flats or wedges, he assigns me an ultimatum.
Move it or lose it, Slowy Slowerson, Jessica hip-nudges me aside to use the computer, an elastic, never-enough-hands panic on her face, her loosening French braid an outer snapshot of the unravelling cords of her brain.
Swinging through the kitchen, Chef Tom hands me a sample of blue cheese from the special. I taste it: layers of morphing flavours all just slightly indecipherable like the crossroads of my future. Or maybe…
Tennis balls, I describe the taste to Chef Tom, taking my pear valoute soup for table two.
The heavy door smacks my butt on the way out, sloshing the soup up on the rim, the bowl burning off my thumbprint, literally erasing my ability to leave a trace. When I arrive at the table it’s unoccupied, I put the plates down and look around for the customers, locating them at table thirteen. Evidently the man at the next table was coughing too outwardly, infesting them with his public germs.
Where in the hell is my beer? The cap’n stands from his table and actually pounds a fist onto the bar. How long do I have to wait around here for some friggin’ service, he yells, a clattering fork daring to interrupt him.
Sir, can I help you? Rick listens to the cap’n tell on me like a third grade girl being chased by boys.
We’ve been waiting forever , the wife chimes in.
What’s with Sailor Joe? Marcel asks, as I load my tray at the bar.
Ever read The Twits by Roald Dahl? I ask.
It’s the recession, Marcel says, pouring me two Sapporos and a half litre of shiraz. Makes people stingy and on edge. They still eat out, they just tip less and complain more.
What is a recession? I ask him, stabbing my drink chit. Seriously. I’m from the eighties.
I imagine students writing their notes between lines on old newspapers and young ladies drawing lines up the backs of their calves. As though without money we’d go back in time, poverty the wormhole to the past.
Hey guys, Rick materializes like an unwanted apparition through the wall on a stormy night. Just remember to look like you’re working, even when you’re talking, m’kay?
Living is dying, I say to Marcel, balancing my full tray.
Drink green tea, Marcel suggests. Antioxidants.
Making my rounds, I deliver a lukewarm cappuccino to the Golden Girls
at table three, who take the opportunity to coach me on making foam like Alberto mousse, then get schooled on the difference between rare and medium rare by germaphobe table two/thirteen, who refuse to get Maple Leaf cold cuts disease and have a good lawyer. I make a self-note to stick fingers in all cappuccinos and cut incisions in all steak flanks before serving them from now on. What would I do if I didn’t have to work? Spend the day making concept art about how 9-11 was an inside job? Simulating flight paths with remote control airplanes and making buildings out of old milk cartons? Or maybe I could make indie films with infectious soundtracks that would make people feel sad and contemporary, later purchasing them on Itunes so they could feel like they’re in the film, like they ‘re being watched – the North American dream. What it’s become.
The restaurant moves around me with jolted fluidity, a long line of red brake lights slowly jerking forward – the world stuck in front of me. I empty a bill fold of loonies into my apron. If I had the money, maybe I could make films. Maybe they would even become timeless. Maybe the aliens would find capsules of my DVDs after the world blows up or gets shunned by the sun, and wonder about me. You are free, I remind myself. Free to borrow money at 18% and have a home that doesn’t belong to you until you’re too old to care for it. Bussing table seven, I open the bill fold. The cap’n has left me nothing, his pension already spent on washable handkerchiefs and Axe Body Spray that reminds him of his first bottle of Old Spice, of a time when he felt clean and noticed.
Visa haunts me like a dead loved one. How will I keep up with my expensive self? Will I end up like the kids who hang themselves over the student visas they signed up for that came with free t-shirts on the first day of university? A new meaning to pay-as-you-go.
I take a breather and go to the back room to refill the ice bucket, rain dripping through the slats of the roof, wetting the expensively pressed linens. West Coast rain, one drop at a time like held in tears. I sit on a box of coffee filters and try to meditate on the gratitude of being able-bodied as I staple together completed credit card slips with small pieces of metal extracted from the Earth – its surface being eaten away at like an apple, then transformed it into intricate, disposable things, its circumference shrinking, inch by inch. A savoury smell feathers in from the kitchen, expensive local ingredients being prepared by disgruntled local chefs stuck in the back of the restaurant away from the action like I’ve become stuck in the back of life. I long to just go home, then consider that everything I own, every IKEA lamp and pretty white piece of Apple technology is the fruit of some unwilling task. M y Ipod, a month of bitten-tongue Sundays, stopping myself from disclosing that the Foie Gras mayo is made by shoving a long stick down the throat of an already full duck.
Willa, Rick calls for me. Where are you? What’s going on?
I’m okay, I yell.
I don’t care if you’re okay, get in here, he yells.
What’s my switch up? I wonder, as Anna Olsen calls it on Sugar when she takes peanut butter cookies and turns them into peanut butter ice cream sandwiches. How do I turn the edible into the delicious?
I’m giving Jessica your tables, Willa, Rick yells, afraid of entering the back room lest it soil his delicate metrosexual threads. And your tips, he yells.
I sometimes think it would be easier just to get it all over with at once. If instead of a thousand people chipping away at me piece by piece until I melt into a pile of compliant employee, I could just sell out one colossal time and be done with it. Like the girl who auctioned off her virginity online to pay off her student loans.
Just a minute, I call up to Rick, too late.
If you can’t keep up, they replace you as fast as technology here.
I’m just re-evaluating my life and life itself, I call in explanation, fairly sure he’s not listening.
In the damp room, I curl up on a stack of white linens and crack open a warm jar of maraschino cherries. Chill with the up and coming stock of tomorrow’s meals, contemplating the chain of unhappy workers with neglected hands and permanent frowns it’s already made its way through, my past not so different. Christmas, a mass child bribery ending in a pile of wasted paper surrounding objects that can’t love you back, Disneyland, the breeding ground for virgin-whore pop stars, Gap jeans, a faraway child’s wasted life. So what now, when all you knew and loved never was? What happens when the perpetually dispensing paper towel rack of life – turning, turning, turning in public washrooms across the world daily – runs out? When the forests have all been used to wipe things clean and dry?
But Madonna said more, I remember now, having forgotten or maybe deleted the info to make room for table three’s order. I twist of the stiff gold cap of the maraschino jar and take a cherry from the jar with my fingers, savouring its throat-singeing burst of red dye. “…but no shit is worth doing unless you’re willing to die for it,” is what she said.
What am I willing to die for?
Are you sure?
March 10, 2009
You can see the highway from our front steps and even the big sign that says Jesus Christ Is The Lord Of This Valley, but you can’t see our house from the highway. I’m sure if you could Dad would try to mow the lawn.
He’s pretty busy, usually, my dad, because he has the funnest job in the world. A go-cart track in the valley called Go On. Mom doesn’t get to have fun. She has to get up early and bake stuff in a big hot oven. When she brings me to the bakery she calls me her pumpkin eater to all the ladies, and it’s so so dumb because she knows I’m Noah. It’s not fun there like at Go On where I get to polish the helmets and ride without one.
One day when it isn’t spring yet, Dad starts fighting with Mom and tells us to go play in the yard but we can still hear. He’s calling Mom animal names like fat cow. I try not to squeak on the swing set and kick some dirty old snow around and Drew is singing a song, I don’t know what. Dad keeps saying the same things over and over even though I know Mom already heard cause he’s yelling them. He’s always grumpy on Saturday mornings, he won’t even watch cartoons. Just then we see the door opening and Dad is dragging the couch out onto the deck and he just leaves it there and tells us: get in the truck. So we get in, and Mom stands there and watches us drive away.
Dad says in the truck for me to get his smokes from the glove compartment so I just get them and don’t bug him but Drew starts to cry, real fake sounding. When we get there, Dad buys her a Cream Soda and she gets a pink mouth to match her pink eyes. Dad gives me a garbage bag and says: go pick stuff up off the track. Stuff blows out there from the highway like cans and burger wrappers. So I go do it and Dad starts listening to the cart motors. He never gets in them, the carts. If I was him, when no one was around, I would go as fast as I could.
When we get home, Mom is still in her pjs and on the radio that guy with long black strings for hair is going: pyjamas, pyjamas – I hope you like pyjamas, too. But I don’t anymore because Mom wears hers too much.
Sometime around this time, Mom stops making dinner. But that’s okay because I know how to use the microwave. I can cook stuff like Zoodles and Spaghettios. When I get home from school Mom lets me eat on the floor beside her chairs. She has to have two because she sits right in the middle of them and the couch is still outside and all wet now.
One night when Dad gets home with Drew, he says, g damnit Sophie, what are you going to do with your daughter? The daycare doesn’t want Drew to come anymore because she hits kids and says the f word and won’t drink her milk. Mom doesn’t answer dad, just goes to her room and says to me: go play with Drew.
Me and Drew play house. We’re poor and there’s nothing for dinner and the doll is sick. I go out and find stuff like sticks and pinecones and she cooks them on the lamp. Usually it’s very cold and we might die so we make a fire out of a pile of carebears and Drew makes tea over it. I ask her if she wants me to go get some apple juice but she says she doesn’t want it – that this will taste better.
One day at Go On when this kid drives his cart off the track and underneath the fence and almost right into traffic, Dad says, f it all anyways, and that he’s done with the place. It’ll go outta business anyway, he says, because the Calgary guys are building a better place down the highway with faster carts and mini-golf.
At home that night there are no more clean spoons and I have to get Mom. But she just tells me in a minute, and smokes and laughs at something on the wheel show and her laugh sounds like the laughing on TV. So me and Drew eat dry Macaroni in our house, which is her duck sheet over the desk. It tastes like glue. I wish we had a real house like the plastic one at Drew’s old daycare that came with real plastic bacon and eggs.
The next day on the bus home from school Angela S. leans over the aisle and says to me that our house looks like the dump. I can’t think of what to say so I don’t talk for the rest of the way, and I just want to go home. But when I get home there’s no one there.
I sit on the floor and wait and watch one of the shows with the blond haired people who cry with no tears, then go get some Jello. In the kitchen there are muddy footprints, big ones so I know they’re not mine. I follow them outside and see a bunch of tires beside the couch on the deck. The tires from Go On.
When the truck finally comes up the driveway, it’s dark outside and everybody’s in it. In the back of the truck are some of the carts. Dad takes them out and puts them beside the tires, then goes into the house. He tells me to clean up the footprints. No, I tell him. The vacuum smells like old people, I tell him.
Mom doesn’t get out of the truck for a very long time.
At night, in bed I think of how our house is not like the dump, and how the go-carts will make our house look fun.
I don’t think my dad lives here anymore. Maybe he does but I don’t see him. But I don’t care because the snow is gone and I can go wherever now. Me and the boys from the road go down past the llama ranch to the hoodoos in Timber Ridge. Timber Ridge is where the Calgary people come for summer. Even though they only live here for part of the year their houses are the biggest of anyone’s. But the Calgary kids never play down at the hoodoos, just go to their beach. On the hoodoos we play things like mountain goat herd, and use our hooves to carve things in the clay and fight each other with our horns. The other boys sometimes kick the sides of them and I tell them - stop, or they won’t look like castles anymore. But they just do it more.
The boys and I are real tired of playing fake stuff though. In Dad’s shed, we found a hammer and nails and a saw and some other tools we didn’t know how to use. Down at the hoodoos we’re building a secret. Right now it just looks like a high-up raft though. We figured out how to make a ladder by sticking planks into the tree. Some of the boys are scared to go high up, but we make them go anyway. Everybody has to help.
One night I’m going to sleep up there. And bring who I want there. We’ll only let who we want in. Girls maybe, but only if we feel like it. Maybe Drew, but only if she promises not to tell Mom, because Mom would break it. One day we’re going to have a TV up there. And a couch. Maybe even live there, too.