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Fat-jowled moon leers in the sky like an old uncle’s face. The stars look like small change, meaningful to someone but worthless to him. Cold and fatigue soak through to his bones. It’s late, and he knows things were better some other time, before he let it all go sour. He straightens his back, calls his mind to attention, orders himself to focus. A taxi approaches, and he waves. The driver’s hands gesture some vague communication and the cab accelerates away, disappears around the corner. He knows it’s gone, but he can’t help hoping it will return. Just for him.
When he was young, there were words that made him laugh no matter where he was or who he was with. “Lasso,” “righty-o,” and “wigwam” are three that come to mind as he idles while the red light prepares to turn green. There were others, although he can’t remember them now. The light changes and he hears the word “liposuction” in his mind, as if a very fat woman – his aunt or grandmother -- had leaned toward him in church and whispered in his ear. Each syllable pronounced with the lingering fondness you feel when you remember your lover’s laughter.
A vase with white tulips on the oak dining table. The tap-tap of rain on the skylight above him. A barely perceptible pain behind his eyes. If only the vase, the flowers, the rain, the ache were everything, he would be content. The problem is he has to deal with much more than these simple things: a havoc of words and sensations and desires and emotions and un-nameable things are forever running riot in his mind. He is not unaccountable for his actions, nor does he wish to be, but at this moment he would pay anything for one true instant of clarity.
He has worked at many occupations: lawn mower, babysitter, teen-age entrepreneur, appliance cleaner, grocery clerk, butcher, gas jockey, construction labourer, waiter, mail clerk, disc jockey, truck driver, commercial writer, music librarian, studio technician, potter, driving instructor, life insurance salesman, pottery instructor, poet, bus driver. These labels cannot define him, but they provide context for other labels: son, brother, uncle, father, husband, divorcee, husband again. The intangible labels are the ones he really likes: thinker, seeker, aesthete, lover, dreamer. Then there are those others he tries to ignore: failure, procrastinator, equivocator, liar, skinny little fucker who will never amount to anything.
A woman places her right foot and then her left on the step, her gnarled hands grasp the metal rails, and she hoists her tiny trembling body up into the bus. She pays her fare, he offers the usual “good morning.” She stares up at him fiercely, eyes luminous as pearls. “I’ve lost him,” she quavers. “Charlie. I’ve lost him.” His gut clenches and pain spears the back of his head. His mind gropes for the right words to offer comfort, but she shuffles past him, and heads for the nearest seat, and he knows he has already lost her.
As it was will never be as it is now. That part has gone; he’d better get used to it. So he sits alone, self-consciously drinking coffee, idly scribbling in a small notebook. Sounds distract him: disembodied murmurs, feet rustling like mice across the carpet, a cough, a groan, laughter. Who are these people? Why have they gathered around him? It’s not that he is lonely or sad or out-of-sorts. More that he is out-of-sync. Nothing meshes. Oh for some Miles Davis and Charlie Parker now – searing trumpet and sax, with the bass drums and piano holding it all together.
Once again the horses invade his dreams. A thousand and one stallions with manes of fire pounding across the plains beneath the star-blasted sky. In each equine brain burns the blind creed of velocity, in every huge heart throbs an unfathomable courage. In this dream he will try to run with them but they will again prove they are swifter than a mere man. This is the seed of his terror. He knows their faith will consume him as he gallops with the herd and finally he will fail but they will never falter and he will be left behind.
His deceased mother and his dead friend show up in someone’s dream, riding in a taxi through the streets of Montreal or Vancouver or Moose Jaw or somewhere strange. They sing a slow, sad song and at the end of each verse they stop to allow his dead friend to laugh. His deceased mother eats pickles. Cats wander all over the street, mingling and schmoozing and rubbing against inanimate objects. His dead friend throws dried tuna out the window and the cats meow their thanks. His deceased mother just laughs and laughs the way she always would in these situations.
He chooses a thought at random from the thousands tumbling around in his mind. He sets it down on a piece of paper. It’s an idle thought, kind of stupid really. He more he looks at it the stupider it gets. He stands up and walks around the table, looking at the scrawled thought from all different angles. At first it tries to make sense to him, but after a few minutes it just gives up and gets stupider and stupider and finally folds itself up into a tiny paper ball. He puts it in his mouth, chews thoughtfully, swallows.
Dear father, he writes, then pauses. Should he capitalize the F? Should he have capitalized on those rare opportunities that arose through the years to try and get closer? Like that one weekend when he went home to visit and tell his father to stop drinking? That was the weekend they spoke seven words in total to one another and he can’t remember more than four of them, three of which his father spoke. That was the last weekend he saw his father, except for the open casket viewing with Louis Armstrong’s “You Rascal You” playing softly in the background.
“Dear son,” he writes. He’s started this letter ten thousand times, but never finished. He needs to say something, but he’s not sure if you’re the person he wants to say it to. He’s afraid he won’t speak the truth. He’s not afraid of lying. He’s just not sure what the truth might look like, naked and shivering alone in that cold light with no protection from all the things that want to kill it. He writes: “I love you, son.” This is a code, he thinks smugly, obscure and indecipherable. How could you ever know what he really means?
“Dear Mother,” he writes. He always told her anything he wanted. “Just got up, talked to a friend on the phone. Enjoying my first coffee of the day.” What he wants to say is that simple, but he wants it to carry more meaning. “I love this time in the morning, alone with the cats, before the world starts yammering away, judging me, fucking with my mind, taking me away from me. Hope things are okay wherever you are.” He reaches for the delete key, ashamed of this foolishness. Next time, he knows, he’ll tell her a more comfortable lie.
“Dear friend.” No. “Dear ex-friend.” No. “Dear former acquaintance.” No. “Dear guy who I spent Saturday mornings with training for the marathon.” He never liked the guy. Loud-mouthed and opinionated, the guy could do anything he wanted, it seemed. What he remembers now is how he repeatedly beat the guy in any race they entered. One day he borrowed the guy’s truck, ran it into a pole, promised he’d pay for the repairs, but never wrote the cheque. Last time he saw the guy was on tv; the sound was off and the guy looked older than he should have.
“Dear anybody,” he writes. “It’s too early for me to know who I am yet. My eyes are still etched with last night’s dreams that I can’t remember. I have an erection that won’t go away by itself and I don’t seem to have the initiative to do anything about it. The day stretches out before me like an angry gaping mouth. No-one will ever listen and the pain is a ravenous old man eating up my brain. I am so afraid right now, terror-stricken, and I don’t know why. But you needn’t worry: probably none of this is true.”
He said “I love you.” She turned her face to the wall. He said it again. She stretched her arms above her head and opened her legs wide. As they heaved and grabbed and moaned he was pretty sure she knew it wasn’t about love. It wasn’t even about fucking or the wrinkles around her mouth and eyes or the stuttering of his heart or the sour stink in the room. All he could be certain of was the scabby snow outside his basement apartment window, the pale arctic sun, the familiar ache he felt every Saturday morning after payday.
He sits at the bar and waits while the bartender serves the man on his left. Single malt Scotch. The simple pop of the cork, the soft glug as the pale amber pours from the bottle: it always makes him think of the white skin of a woman’s throat awaiting his first kiss. He leans closer to catch the aroma – deep and peaty with a hint of sweetness over the underlying punch of alcohol. His stomach gurgles and he’s sure he’ll start drooling any moment. He stands up. Knows he has to leave right now, before it all begins again.
The night he traversed the moon’s face, you were watching. You with your all-knowing vision, your pathological curiosity. He stumbled blindly across the milk-white plains, the craters looming on the horizon. You saw that. But did you see everything -- the moon people flicking their lizard-like tongues as they caressed his flesh with their dry fingers, bathed him in moon dust, wrapped him in a robe made from the silver light that is everywhere up there. And did you hear their songs wailing and writhing about him, lifting him higher, offering him up to the sun’s infinite aura for healing?
Taken one by one, the incidents meant nothing. But he had one moment of clarity. He was almost home, and suddenly he saw everything as a complete picture: her words in front of him as if they had been printed in the air, the lack of colour in her face, the twitch behind his left eye, the gulls crying down at the beach. He almost made a decision. In his imagination he cancelled his turn signal and continued up Cook Street, merged onto the highway, and caught the three o’clock ferry to Vancouver. In his mind he never came home.
He dreams he is in a place called Death: a wide plain teeming with tens of thousands of dead. There is something very important – a body of Knowledge, a Code of Behaviour -- every one of the living corpses knows except him. Two trains arrive. He is the only passenger directed to board the Train to Mortality. All the others have formed a line by the Train to Heaven. Because he isn’t privy to the Knowledge or the Code, he doesn’t know what this means. Has he been condemned? Or has he been blessed with the prize everyone else wants?
He awakes weeping. Not shedding tears, not crying, but weeping. Huge sobs erupt from his belly, tears leak from his eyes and pool in his ears. He feels euphoric. He feels devastated. He feels like he has just leapt from a very high place, and although his arms are spread like wings and it seems he is soaring, an almost infinite grief consumes him. This is not really flying. He knows this. An endless darkness waits at the end of all this and he knows that when he hits bottom he will cease to exist. He wakes again, still weeping.
On an ordinary day, a nondescript man boards the bus. Grey jacket, blue jeans, shabby runners. Sits down and looks out the window. As the driver steers the bus into traffic, Nondescript Man taps his fingers three times, makes a farting noise with his mouth, burps loudly, then says, “Hello, hello, I see you.” He repeats this sequence three times in exactly the same order. Then he rings the bell and as he leaves the bus, he says “May the force be with you, oh Divine Driver.” Everyone gets on the bus in the middle of his own personal story.
He thought it was over and done with. But here they are, back in the middle of it all. It started with his simple and almost sincere “I’m sorry.” But it rapidly devolved into a discussion, then an argument broke out. She remembered things differently than he did and of course they had to start again. She says he made the first mistake and he says it’s more complicated and they fall into one another’s arms and dance the mad familiar dance round and round and round and neither will be the first to fall to the floor from exhaustion.
He hears a door slam somewhere. A disembodied voice yells someone’s name three times. He hears footsteps running behind him and he turns to look. A young girl dashes past him on the street, hair disheveled, a wild look in her eyes. The disembodied voice yells again, farther away this time, and a siren wails, then stops suddenly. Silence. Is something happening here? Should he be alarmed? Should he try to help? The sun slowly warms the pavement. A cat walks lazily out from behind the corner of the house, pauses and looks him, then suddenly disappears behind a bush.
“Dear Lover From the Past,” he writes. He remembers her blonde hair, her laughter. “I can’t remember your scent,” he writes, “or what colour your horse was.” They would meet on the weekends when his wife had custody of the child. They would drink wine, eat dinner, drink more wine, and after the sex she would cry. He’s not sure if it was something he did, or the inevitability of what they both knew he would do. “I hope things are well with you,” he writes, and the insincerity hurts him as much as he knows it will hurt her.
Hums something as he goes about the craft of making coffee. Seven scoops of French Roast, freshly ground, into the paper filter. Hum-hm-hm-hummmm. What the hell is that tune? Water boils, he turns off the kettle, pours the first half cup or so into the filter, just to moisten the coffee. Da-de-daaaaada-hmmmm. Annoying, cloying, some tv theme? Pours the rest of the water and watches, tapping his foot, as it seeps through the filter. Adds cream for the perfect caramel colour, takes the first sip. The tune is gone, and he thanks the magic perfection of his morning purification ritual.
“Dear God,” he writes. He’s not certain he believes in God, or if God believes in him, but he keeps writing, you know, just in case. “Nothing important happening, just the usual slaughters in the war zones, junkie deaths in the dark cities, abuse and misuse of the innocent by the less-than-innocent. But you know all that. The job is going well. I love my wife, she reciprocates constantly. Oh yeah, thanks for the great weekend.” He feels the usual wave of embarrassment washing over him as he signs off. “Yours truly, you-know-who.” Really? Yours truly? Who’s kidding who here?
(Stolen from the protagonist’s journal)
Form a new opinion about something.
Get an answer you can believe in.
Give a damn about another person’s inconsequential life.
Make do with less than you want. Do more than you think you can.
Review this list daily; find a way to make it mean something.
To Not Do:
Change your mind without conviction.
Love out of obligation or necessity.
Inflict pain on another being who cannot understand where the pain is coming from.
Assume what you think is the truth.
Use love as an excuse for your mistakes Ignore the consequences.
He was thirteen when he resolved to lie once a day for a whole month. Creating the lies was easy; he told them with enough conviction that everyone wanted to believe him. Day five he stole from his mother’s change jar; his sister was blamed. Day fourteen he began the rumour that his father was gay. Day twenty-seven he told his teacher what he had seen one night through someone’s bedroom window. He lied and lied and lied and on the day after the thirty-first day he automatically renewed his commitment to lie once a day for a whole month.
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