13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl
When We Went Against the Universe
We went against the universe at the McDonald’s on the corner of Wolfedale and Mavis. On a sunny afternoon. Mel and I hate sunny afternoons. Especially here in Misery Saga, which is what you’re allowed to call Mississauga if you live there. In Misery Saga, there is nothing to do with sunny afternoons but all the things we have already done a thousand times. We’ve lain on our backs in the grass, listening to the same Discman, one earphone each, watching the same clouds pass. We’ve walked in the woodlot pretending to pretend that it is Wonderland, even though when you stand in the heart of it, you can still hear cars going by. We’ve eaten dry cupcakes at that dessert place down the road where all the other kids go. We don’t like other kids but we go anyway, just for the bustle. We’ve sat behind the bleachers sharing Blizzards from Dairy Queen, the wind making our Catholic school kilts flap against our stubbly knees. Our favorite was the one with the pulverized brownies and nuts and chocolate sauce, but they don’t make it anymore for some reason. So we’re at the McDonald’s on the corner eating McFlurries, which everyone knows aren’t as good as Blizzards, even when you tell them to mix more things in.
We’re bored out of our minds as usual, having exhausted every topic of conversation. There is only so much Mel and I can say about the girls we hate or the bands and books and boys we love on a scale of one to ten. There is only so much we can play of The Human Race Game, which is when we eliminate the whole human race and only put back in the people we can stand and only if we both agree. There is only so much we can talk about how we’d give it up and what we’d be wearing and with which boy and what he’d be wearing and what album might be playing in the background. We’ve established, for the second time today, that for Mel it would be a red velvet dress, the drummer from London After Midnight, Renaissance wear, and Violator. For me: a purple velvet dress, Vince Merino, a vintage suit, and Let Love In, but it changes.
So we decide to do the Fate Papers. The Fate Papers is Mel’s name for when you tear off two small bits of paper and write No on one piece and Yes on the other. You shake the two balled-up pieces in your hands while you close your eyes and ask the universe your question. You can ask aloud or in your mind. Mel and I both prefer in your mind but sometimes, if it is an urgent matter, like now, we ask aloud. The first paper that drops is the answer. Now we are asking if Mel should call Eric to see if he likes the CD she made him of her favorite Lee Hazlewood songs. The Fate Papers already said No, but we’re doing two out of three because that can’t be right even though the Fate Papers are never wrong. Next, we are going to ask if I should try talking to Vince Merino again after yesterday’s fiasco attempt.
The Fate Papers say No to Mel again, then No to me.
The universe is against us, which makes sense. So we get another McFlurry and talk about how fat we are for a while. But it doesn’t matter how long we talk about it or how many times Mel assures me she’s a fucking whale beneath her clothes; I know I’m fatter. Not by a little either. Mel has an ass, I’ll give her that, but that’s all I’ll give her.
If I win the fat argument then Mel will say, so what I’m way prettier than she is, but I think face-wise we’re about the same. I haven’t really grown into my nose yet or discovered the arts of starving myself and tweezing. So I’ll be honest with you. In this story, I don’t look that good, except for maybe my skin, which Mel claims she would kill for. Also my tits. Mel says they’re huge and she assures me it’s a good thing. Maybe even too much of a good thing, she says. It’s Mel who got me using the word tits. I have trouble calling them anything even in my thoughts. They embarrass me and all the words for them embarrass me, but I’m trying, for Mel’s sake, to name my assets. Even with my skin and tits, though, it’s still Mel who looks better. She’s got psoriasis and a mustache she has to bleach and still. It’s definitely Mel who has any hope in hell with any of the boys we like. Which is I guess why she claims the men at the next table were looking at her first.
I hadn’t even noticed them. I was busy eating my Oreo McFlurry, hunting for the larger pieces of Oreo that sometimes get trapped at the bottom, which I hate. It’s Mel who points the men out, saying three o’clock to me without moving her lips or making much noise. I turn and see three businessmen sitting in the booth next to us, eating Big Macs. I assume they are businessmen because they are wearing business suits, but they could just as easily be suit salesmen or bank tellers. At any rate, they are men, their hands full of veins and hairs, each pair of hands gripping a bit-?into Big Mac.
Mel says they are totally checking her out. I look at them again and none of them seem to be looking at us. They don’t even seem to be looking at each other. They’re looking at their burgers or into space.
“No,” Mel says. They were looking at her tits. Mel is exceedingly proud of her tits. What she loves most is the mole on the top of her left breast. She wears Wonderbras and low-?cut tops to show it off.
“I want a boob guy,” she always tells me. “I wouldn’t want a butt guy because I hate my butt.”
“Yeah,” I say in sympathy.
“I hate it,” she clarifies. “But boys love it. They always give me compliments. Still, I wouldn’t want a butt guy. He’d always want to do it from behind.”
“Yeah,” I say in sympathy again. We both agree we’d never want a leg guy.
The reason the men are looking, according to Mel, is because she’s been giving off sex vibes all day. I never know what she means by this. My best guess is something between an animal scent and a cosmic force. Mel always says it has to do with the universe. What happens is the universe feels her sex vibes and transmits them to like-?minded men and women. She says these particular men can feel her sex vibes. That’s why they’re looking. She’s giving off enough of them for both of us. Which is why they’re looking at me too. They’re totally checking us both out, she says. They checked her out first, of course. But now they’re checking us both out.
I say, “Really?”
And she says, “Totally. Doesn’t that make you horny?”
I hate the word horny. It makes me think of sweat and snorting and wiry hairs.
“I guess,” I say. Though it really, really doesn’t. The men aren’t really attractive. I mean, they’re fine, I guess. But they have these little blinky businessmen eyes and one of them even has gray hair. They look like they are around my father’s age. I hardly see my father since he left, but I know he has a lot of girlfriends. Mainly women he works with at the hotel where he’s a manager. I find traces of them on my infrequent visits to his apartment — feathery, complicated lingerie between his balled‑up black socks, a box of tampons under the sink. And then in with his cologne bottles shaped like male torsos, I’ll find a perfume that smells sickly sweet. One time one of them left a message on the machine saying she missed his body oh so much. I can’t even imagine missing my father’s body, and not just because he is my father. No, none of this is making me especially horny. But I say it sort of is because I know if I don’t play along Mel will be angry and a pain to hang out with.
“Wouldn’t it be fun,” she says, “if we went up to them and propositioned them?”
“To do what?” I say.
“To, like, I don’t know,” she sighs. “Let us suck them off. For money. I’d say we’re each worth at least fifty bucks. Maybe even a hundred.”
Mel’s a bit of a slut. But you can’t ever call her that. She hates the word slut and gets pissed if anybody around her uses it. She got super pissed at our friend Katherine once, this girl at our school who wants to be a nun, because Katherine says slut about people she doesn’t like and she says it, according to Mel, with a mouth full of hate. I tell Mel, What does she expect from a girl who only wants to be touched by the hand of God? Mel says it doesn’t matter and really hates Katherine even though we’re all friends.
Mel had to change schools, even, because they kept calling her a slut. Mostly behind her back, but sometimes even to her face, like in an eighties movie. Something about a boy she really liked who already had a girlfriend but the boy found out Mel liked him and started to like her back without breaking up with his girlfriend. So when Mel found out the boy liked her back, she gave him a blow job in the woodlot. But then his girlfriend found out about it and got everyone in the school to start calling Mel a slut whenever she walked by. I guess the boy must have felt guilty about the blow job and decided to tell his girlfriend. Or he was proud of it and just couldn’t stop himself. Whatever it was, Mel couldn’t take it and had to change schools. That’s how I met her and we started getting bored together.
People call Mel a slut at our school too. Because of what she wears on days when we don’t wear our uniforms, but also because of what she wears on regular days, which is nylon thigh highs instead of the itchy wool tights we’re supposed to wear. And she rolls her kilt all the way up so you can see where the thigh highs end. My mother thinks this is why people call Mel a slut. But I don’t think so. Not to sound like an old woman, but you should see girls these days. Some girls roll their kilts all the way up to their crotches. I wear mine down to my knees, but sometimes I’ll roll it up just a little on the way to school. But then it always rolls back down by itself. It’s fine. Later on I’m going to be really fucking beautiful. I’m going to grow into that nose and develop an eating disorder. I’ll be hungry and angry all my life but I’ll also have a hell of a time.
For minutes now, Mel has been seriously calculating how much we might be worth to these businessmen. She has decided that our youth and the fact that we’re both virgins – in her case, only technically – makes us way more expensive than she initially thought.
“At least three hundred dollars,” she finally says. “What do you think?”
“At the very, very least,” I say, playing along. I try to use a voice that tells her I’m just playing along.
I look at the men more closely. Two are fine. But one of them is rather flabby and pale with little worm husk lips and a look of hunger in his eyes that his Big Mac is not filling. His whole face reminds me of the word horny. I know if it comes down to it, this is the one I’ll get stuck with.
“But where are we going to go with these guys?” I ask.
“I’ll bet one of them’s got a big, black car,” Mel says. “Big enough for all of us.”
Mel looks out the Windex-streaked window into the parking lot. I look with her.
There are no cars like that in the parking lot.
“There’s more parking in back,” she says. “You go ask them.”
“You go,” I say. “It’s your idea.”
She looks at me and takes a deep breath and says, “Okay,” and gets up and I say, “Wait.”
“Let’s go to the bathroom first.”
When we get up to go to the bathroom, Mel saunters over to the three men and says hey in what she thinks is her sexiest voice. To me, though, the only difference between it and her normal voice is that it sounds louder. In this voice, she asks them if they happen to know the time.
All three of these men are wearing wristwatches but only one of them – the fat, pale, horny one – consults his. The other two exchange a glance and keep eating.
“It’s about five thirty,” he says, looking up at us. And I notice that when he does, his little businessman eyes do this little dip from our faces to our chests. It’s the littlest dip you can imagine. But it’s all Mel can talk about when we get to the bathroom.
“Could you beeelieeeeve that guy? I mean, he was slobbering all ohhhver us.”
And I say, “Totally, I know. He totally was.”
And she says, “Oh my god, Lizzie, we have to do this.”
And I agree. We have to.
Today was Dress Down Day, which means that though we came from school, we’re not wearing our uniforms. This Dress Down Day had a theme. Normally Mel and I steer clear of the themes because of how lame they usually are, but this one was The Sixties, which we guessed was cool enough. Everybody dressed up like a hippie, including me, but Mel did a cooler thing. She found this minidress with a whacked-out red and white pattern at Value Village for, like, seven bucks. So she’s wearing that and her lips are covered with a silvery frost, which she is now reapplying in the mirror. Her eyelids are lined thickly on top with black liquid liner. All day she got compliments from everyone, even though we know no one except Katherine. Girls we both hate kept coming up to Mel and saying things like, Love your dress. And then Mel said, Thanks, and when the girl was out of earshot Mel finished with, Bitch. And we both laughed.
I finish putting on my lipstick and I watch Mel apply a fresh coat of eyeliner to one closed eye, and I say, “But we can’t have sex with them.”
Mel waves the coat of eyeliner dry with a hand.
“Oh my god,” she says, “of course not. Are you crazy?”
I heave a sigh of relief. “Okay, good,” I say.
“We’re just going to suck them off in their car,” she says. “It’ll make their whole lives.”
“All right,” I say, and run my tongue over my teeth.
I pray the businessmen won’t be there when we get back, but they’re there. And one of them, our friend the time teller, even smiles a not unwelcoming smile. Mel takes a step toward their table; they all look up. Then just as she takes a breath and starts to open her mouth, I grab her hand and pull her back.
“What?” she hisses.
“Let’s do the Fate Papers real quick,” I hiss back.
Mel sighs and sits down with me back at our booth.
I watch as she lamely shuffles the crumpled bits of napkin. I close my eyes tight and ask the universe as hard as I can in my mind.
When the paper drops, I pick it up off the table and unfold it.
Yes, written with purple ink in Mel’s loopy hand.
I make her do two out of three.
“Now what?” she says, as we both stare the crumpled Yes of the universe in the face for the second time.
By then the businessmen are getting up, clearing their trays. The horny one, though, he takes his time about it, smiling at me on the way out in a manner that I can only describe as trying for fatherly but coming off more like creepy uncle. Mel and I look at each other and make a face and fake a shudder and laugh.
Later on, Mel will climb into cars and taxis with men she barely knows while I watch from the sidewalk. She’ll agree to blow a guy in the stall of a men’s bathroom near Union Station for fifty dollars. She’ll wear her Catholic school uniform long after she has dropped out of high school for a man from Sudbury who looks exactly like Sloth from The Goonies. After she drops out, I’ll see her at a coffee shop on her way to a fetish bar or to meet a guy, her earphones full of increasingly obscure music, her shoulders and arms covered in welts and bruises, full of stories involving men who I’ll call The Icks because their names always seem to end in ick. Rick. Vick. There will be two Nicks. She’ll tell me the stories while I stare at the welts, the purply blue swirls of bruise edged with yellow like little inverted galaxies.
Much later on, in the back of a parked van, my wrists will get tied together with a pair of dirty gym socks and I’ll get terrible head from a political science major who will tell me my inability to come is psychological. I’ll go to a park with a man ten years older than I am, an Indian physicist. After explaining resonance to me with violent hand gestures, he’ll dry-hump me between the rocks bordering the man-made creek. Years before that, in a hotel room in the next suburb, I’ll go down on a man old enough to be my father = a friend of my mother’s – every day after school for a week or so until this man feels so guilty he’ll tell my mother and I’ll never see him again. All that week, this man will pay for my taxi ride from school to the hotel. And I’ll ride in it, lipstick matching my nail polish, bra matching my underwear, feeling like a girl in a movie until I get there and then when I get there, see him waving at me by the entrance, ready to pay the driver, I will not feel like that anymore. You look nice, he’ll say in the elevator on the way up, if we are alone. Nice, not beautiful. Never will this man or any man call me beautiful, not for a long, long time.
“They would have totally gone for it. You know they would have,” Mel says, handing me an earbud as we both rise from the booth. “Especially that one guy.”
“Yeah,” I say, putting the bud in my right ear.
“And the Fate Papers said Yes,” she adds, putting the bud’s twin in her left ear and pushing a button on the Discman, “Some Velvet Morning” swelling in our respective ears.
“You know what that means?” she says. “That means the universe wanted us to blow those guys.”
“So what happens when you go against the universe?” I ask her, as we leave behind the golden arches and enter the suddenly ominous maw of a Misery Saga night.
“I don’t know,” she says, thoughtful. “I’ve never done it before. I guess we’ll see.”
As we walk to her house under black-bellied clouds we consider the question, careful to walk the same measured steps side by side so the cord won’t pull too far in either direction.
Excerpted from 13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT A FAT GIRL. Copyright © Mona Awad, 2016. Published by Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
Yiddish for Pirates
Hello. Howaya? Feh. You think those are the only words I know? Boychik, you don’t know from knowing. You ain’t seen knowing. I may be meshugeh crazy, but I know from words. You think I’m a fool shmegegge? I’m all words.
Hello? If you want the story of a life, don’t wait for your alter kaker old gramps over there to wake up. Maybe he’ll never wake. But me? Listen to my words. They tell some story. Because I remember. Sometimes too much, but I remember.
So, nu, bench your fat little oysgepasheter Cape Horn tuches down on that chair and listen to my beaking. Come all ye brave lads, and so forth. I’ll tell you the whole megillah story from fore to aft.
What’s it about? Pirates. Parrots. Jews. Jewels. The Inquisition. Gefilte fish. Gold. A girl.
Boychik, I was a pirate’s parrot, and had I not noshed from the Fountain of Eternal Youth hundreds of years ago, I would rest beside my scurvy captain and Davy Jones hisself at the bottom of the sea where the soulless creatures crawl. And there where would you be?
Without a story.
That life. It was a book made into a life. A wonder tale. The glinty waves. The deep jungle. A world I wouldn’t have believed if I hadn’t sailed right into it. And for a time, that world had but one shoulder, blue and fussy with epaulettes hanging off the rigging of a stolen frock coat, a cutlass of a collarbone covered in flesh like mangy beef jerky.
My captain’s shoulder.
Feh, these days no one wants to hear. Maybe not even you. Thye treat us like leftovers – wizened chicken-gizzard pupiklech in this birdhouse of leftover Yids. But nu, it’s true, most of us look like yesterday’s chicken or its gizzards. Though look at these feathers. A young bird would be proud of such grey.
The Shalom Home for the Aged.
Shalom? In Hebrew, “shalom” means hello, goodbye, peace. Imagine the crazy farkakteh waving of some poultry-skinned geezer on the fifth floor, squinting out from between the orange curtains. Is he waving hello or goodbye? Ptuh! It’s an old age home, so who knows? Maybe the shlemiel thinks he’s in a crow’s nest and is warning of an invading armada. Alav ha’shalom. Peace be upon him, old nudnik.
But what does peace look like? Is it better to be careened tsitskehs-over-tuches, nipples-over-nethers in dry dock, the dangling clams of your ballsack scraped daily for barnacles by some balmelocheh know-it-all nurse, or lost somewhere on the seventh of the seven seas snorting the scent of new flowers and the soft jellyfish pazookheh breasts of beautiful sheyneh maidens?
Too often, stories in this library of lost people are told in the farmisht confused language of forgetting, but I speak many languages and I’m fluent in both remembering and forgetting. Though, nu, it’s easier to tell the stories you remember.
Or pretend to. And what you don’t remember, the stories tell for you.
Ach. I talk too much. I’ve got myself twisted fardreyt with words turncoating again, thinking about my bastard mamzer captain himself. But what do you expect? Five hundred years old, I’m an alter kaker geezer of the highest degree, with a brain like a cabbage roll. A parrot brain like a chameleon on Jewish tartan.
The horizon, I once told a Spanish painter, it gives you a whole new perspective. It doesn’t exist except from far away. The horizon is always a story, and as soon as we get there, it’s somewhere else.
The horizon, it’s a line we crossed just to see what we could see. And believe me, we saw many things, some things that wouldn’t just stay over the horizon.
They wanted our souls for eternal barbecue so we travelled with Columbus into that braves’ new world as if across a vast and chilly Jordan. An undividing Red Sea. And what did the ancients find? A promising land. Thousands of years of history. Regret. Happiness. The future.
And what did we find? Ach, this is a pirate tale I’m telling you, so it has to be treasure. So, nu, you ask, what is this treasure and where is it buried?
This I’ll try to answer. As well as another, the big question of all stories: And then what happened?
Yes, it brings mazel for a pimply boy like you to hear about blood, kishkas – guts – dangerous books, and shtupping. It puts some hair between your ears and above your skinny-dick shmeckel.
You’ll like it.
So, nu, in the beginning what was there?
Excerpted from YIDDISH FOR PIRATES. Copyright © 2016 Gary Barwin. Excerpted by permission of Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
getting a sweat on
Pillow spent the last half of his run throwing straight punches up into the air, smiling and imagining three cheetahs charging, gathering momentum across the empty plain of the sky. He saw the way their hips moved, and he pictured the way their faces looked up close: calm and still, being pushed on hard by the wind. As he cooled down and stretched on the thin, fading strip of grass between his apartment and the sidewalk, Pillow came back to himself a little and laughed. But he couldn’t help it. It’s normal to be excited when you’re going to the zoo.
Pillow was of the mind that going to the zoo was just about the best thing a person could do with a day. He’d been as a child, but the way he figured it, when you’re a kid you’re sort of maxed out on amazement: tall buildings are amazing, cars are amazing, subways are terrifying and amazing, grown men’s feet are terrifying and amazing, and so on. According to Pillow, you’re sort of getting screwed by going to the zoo once when you’re eight. What they should do is let you get used to the human world, be at full size in it for a while, let the awe fizzle a bit and then bring you to the zoo. Because snow just isn’t the same after you’ve seen two polar bears, and you can’t really understand how nice it is that orangutans hold hands with their feet until you’ve held hands as an adult, as someone who knows for sure how soft and warm and soothing someone else’s skin can be.
While he’d been boxing (and cheating) professionally, Pillow had worked out an arrangement with one of the zookeepers to buy the leftover anabolic steroids they had for gorillas who stopped making testosterone in captivity. When he started working for Breton’s syndicate he’d made the introductions, and now once a month Pillow would go to the always-abandoned picnic area behind the Giraffe Park to drop off the money and pick up the shipment.
Pillow took the stairs three at a time, hitting a short hop at the top of each landing and switching his feet briskly in the air. He swung into the open courtyard hallway and saw a cake-slice boat sinking into a turbulent sea of icing.
Every third Wednesday, a box with a small wrapped parcel in it and an envelope taped to the lid would be propped up against his front door when he got in from his workout. The envelope had his money in it, and he wasn’t allowed to open the parcel.
Pillow’s monthly $1,000 payment was actually more like a $975 payment, because he thought it only right to pay for the zoo (tigers don’t come cheap), but he didn’t believe in memberships.
As he pulled his car into the lot, Pillow craned his neck painfully to look into the cheetah enclosure. Between the thin metal diamonds of fence he saw an empty patch of brown grass. Pillow wished he had more time to spare.
At first he’d tried to pace himself at the zoo, looking at one section a month, but by now he’d seen it all, many times over, so his path depended on what kind of animals he felt like staring at for a long time. There were the animals that Pillow was pretty sure were dinosaurs, like the rhinoceros with what looked like armoured plates going along his sides with a slot for the tail, or any of the crazy lizards. Another option was the animals that reminded him of people, like monkeys or, in a weird way, turtles. There were the slow, big and sad animals, like elephants or warthogs, and he could watch them just shuffle around, listlessly making marks in the dirt and sniffing their food instead of eating it. On the other end of things there were the fast animals, the giant cats and so forth; he could watch them run and still keep track of them, even the cheetahs, who ran faster than he’d believed legs could move a thing.
Most of the things Pillow really liked to do were obviously morally wrong. He wasn’t an idiot; clearly it was wrong to punch people in the face for money. But there had been an art to it, and it had been thrilling and thoughtful for him. The zoo was also evil, a jail for animals who’d committed no crimes, but he loved it. The way Pillow figured it, love wasn’t about goodness, it wasn’t about being right, loving the very best person, having the most ethical fun. Love was about being alone and making some decisions.
A lot of the happiest seconds of Pillow’s life had happened in places like the zoo. Places where wonder coated the ceiling, and twenty different kinds of piss coated the floors. Places where you could watch a pinnacle of animal movement and dexterity from a distance, with loud, horrible people beside you shouting obnoxious things at abused animals whose hurt was their entertainment.
To Pillow, none of that meant he shouldn’t be happy when a gorilla looked him in the eyes and crossed its feet at the ankles. It didn’t make that something he could have imagined on his own.
That day he was a little pressed for time. He had to meet Breton and Louise Aragon about a job, so he paid and beelined to the giraffes, barely stopping to watch a wolf or two while they were sleeping. As he entered the picnic area, he peeked between the trees toward the giraffes and saw that they were all eating. Pillow would have happily spared a few minutes if they’d been playing in the fake river, or passing a ball around, but he didn’t feel like watching anyone else pig out. The drugs were waiting under a park bench, and Pillow casually swapped boxes and went to climb the fence out of the zoo. Pillow always climbed the fence out, wanting to keep a low profile. He wondered if anyone noticed that he’d walk in the front door and never back out.
Pillow knew he’d missed out on good animals for the month, but he was careful to spend an extra second straddling the top of the fence on his way out, looking at the giraffe’s face just above the line of trees, its huge purple tongue sprawling graphically in all directions, its head bobbing and tipping around as it took steps he couldn’t see.
Excerpted from PILLOW. Copyright © Andrew Battershill, 2015. Excerpted by permission of Coach House Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Rumour had it that the doctor’s wife was coming to take the waters at Ixchel. The clinic was located in the highlands of Guatemala, at the edge of a lake that was eighty-four thousand years old. You came for the lake, and for the beauty of the three volcanoes, and for the quaintness of the twelve villages that surrounded the basin of the lake, and for the afternoon winds that were thought to carry away sin. But if you were a woman who was infertile, you came to take the waters.
Íso Perdido, who lived in the village and worked as a keeper at the clinic, had heard of the wife’s imminent arrival. The doctor himself had told her. His wife was to arrive on Sunday. Even so, when Íso arrived at work on Monday morning and was given her assignment, she looked at the name on the card and wanted to say that she couldn’t. But she had no good reason to give, or no reason that was safe. And so she prepared herself. She changed into wide black pants and a black top. She wore sandals. No jewellery and no makeup. She pulled her hair back in a ponytail with a barrette carved from Santa Maria. She went to the doctor’s wife’s room and knocked on the door. A voice called out and she entered.
She was at the table, finishing her breakfast. Her back, as she sat, was very erect and rigid. Her hair was blonde, like her husband’s, but it was straighter, and it was shiny, as if it had been brushed and then brushed again. Her face was sharp and long, her eyes blue. She half rose from her seat and then sat down again.
Íso introduced herself. She said, I’ll be your keeper for the next two weeks. If you need anything, simply ask. If you’re unhappy, tell me. I’m here for you. Everyone at the clinic is here for you. We only want the best. She paused briefly and then asked, Should we begin, Mrs. Mann?
Please. Call me Susan, the doctor’s wife said. And then she said that there were many expectations and she didn’t know if she could live up to them.
This was a typical confession, immediate and without boundaries.
No expectations, Íso said. Only hope and goodwill.
The wife’s face went soft.
Íso offered her a hand. She said that she would help her change.
Oh, I can manage.
Íso said that it was best to accept help. At first you might be shy. But you’ll get used to me and soon it will feel normal.
Íso led her into the bedroom and took a robe from the closet. Rubber sandals. A towel. She laid all of this on the bed. The doctor’s wife was wearing a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar, and it was fastened down the back. Íso began to unbutton the shirt. She slid the shirt off, folded it, and laid it on a chair. She said that she would now remove Susan’s bra. She did so and laid it on top of the shirt. She moved around to face the doctor’s wife, whose hands fluttered up towards her chest and then back to her hips. Many of the women who came to the clinic were afraid of their bodies. A woman might walk around naked, but then avert her eyes when she passed by a mirror. Or she might carry herself as if curling into a cocoon. Or she might walk on tiptoes, as if the floor below might crack.
It’s all right, Íso said. You’re safe. She kneeled and released the wife’s belt and undid her buttons and pulled down her jeans.
And your underwear, Íso said. She helped her.
The wife lifted one foot, then another.
Íso saw the length of her neck, her jaw, the size of her breasts, her navel, the thin strip of pubic hair, her legs, the narrowness of her feet. Inevitably, she compared herself and she felt inferior, and this made her breathless and she thought that everything was impossible. But then she focused again and helped Susan into her robe. She tied it.
May I put your hair into a braid? she asked.
Íso wove a single thick braid. Susan’s hair was very long and very beautiful, and Íso told her so.
I wonder sometimes if I’d cut it, and then I might get pregnant. My husband thinks this is nonsense.
Íso said that she didn’t think anything was nonsense.
Do you know him? the wife asked.
Everyone knows Doctor Mann.
I haven’t seen him yet. Everything is strange. The vegetation, the waves against the shore, the men who fish at night outside my bedroom window. She said she’d heard a knocking and thought that someone wanted to enter, but it was only oars banging against the gunnels of a boat. Coming in by car yesterday she’d seen a little boy carrying a huge bundle of sticks on his back. Like an image from the underworld, she said. My husband told me not to get my hopes up. What do you think?
Íso said that hope was never harmful. In any case, there were no rules.
She said that it was time, and she led her outside and down a cobbled path, beneath the jacaranda trees, and into the pool area, which was covered by paja and surrounded by walls of bamboo. She told Susan that she would take the waters twice a day. In the morning and in the afternoon. After each bath she would receive a massage that would focus on her womb.
At the pool’s edge, Íso reached to untie Susan’s robe.
Could I wear a bathing suit? Susan asked.
It’s better to let the water touch you everywhere, Íso said. Don’t worry, we’re alone.
They were. The pool was not large, and it was heated, and above them there were skylights. Íso wore her pants and top. She stepped down into the pool with Susan. Susan floated naked on her back as Íso supported her. There was music playing softly. Íso, as she did with other patients, tried to look elsewhere, and not at the body she was holding. But she was aware of how slight Susan was, and she was aware of Susan’s face and its vulnerability, and of how Susan closed her eyes and turned away as if to hide. Íso thought of the doctor’s hands touching the body she was now holding. It was too much, and so she thought of English verbs and irregular conjugations.
As they came up the stairs from the pool, Íso retrieved the robe and held it open for Susan and then tied it in front. She felt Susan’s breath on the crown of her head as she bowed. They crossed the cobbled path and descended a small staircase into a cave-like room with an oval skylight. The room held a shower, a steam bath, and a narrow bed. Íso excused herself and changed into a dark blue sleeveless shift that came to just below her knees. It made her look androgynous. She returned to the room where Susan waited.
In the shower Susan sat on the chair and Íso released her hair from its braid and it fell to the small of her back. Íso soaked Susan’s hair and took some shampoo and lathered her scalp. Her forehead was broad and her skin was smooth and almost translucent. Íso could see the small blue veins, like many lines drawn by a thin pencil.
It’s a workout, washing my hair, Susan said. It’s beautiful, Íso said.
If I don’t succeed this time, off it goes, Susan said.
Excerpted from STRANGER. Copyright © 2016 by David Bergen. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
to suckle an infant
to bring up a child
to take care of the sick
The journey was no worse than she expected. A train from London to Liverpool; the steam packet overnight to Dublin; a slow Sunday train west to a town called Athlone.
A driver was waiting. “Mrs. Wright?”
Lib had known many Irishmen, soldiers. But that was some years ago, so her ear strained now to make out the driver’s words.
He carried her trunk to what he called the jaunting car. An Irish misnomer; nothing jaunty about this bare cart. Lib settled herself on the single bench down the middle, her boots hanging closer to the right-hand wheel than she liked. She put up her steel-frame umbrella against the drizzle. This was better than the stuffy train, at least.
On the other side of the bench, slouching so his back almost touched hers, the driver flicked his whip. “Go on, now!”
The shaggy pony stirred.
The few people on the macadamised road out of Athlone seemed wan, which Lib attributed to the infamous diet of potatoes and little else. Perhaps that was responsible for the driver’s missing teeth too.
He made some remark about the dead.
“I beg your pardon?”
“The dead centre, ma’am.”
Lib waited, braced against the juddering of the cart.
He pointed down. “We’re in the exact middle of the country here.”
Flat fields striped with dark foliage. Sheets of reddish- brown peat; wasn’t bogland known to harbour disease? The occasional grey remains of a cottage, almost greened over. Nothing that struck Lib as picturesque. Clearly the Irish Midlands were a depression where wet pooled, the little circle in a saucer.
The jaunting car turned off the road onto a narrower gravel way. The pattering on her umbrella’s canvas became a continuous thrum. Windowless cabins; Lib imagined a family with its animals in each, huddling in out of the rain.
At intervals a lane led off towards a jumble of roofs that probably constituted a village. But never the right village, evidently. Lib should have asked the driver how long the journey was likely to take. She didn’t put the question to him now in case the answer was Still a long time yet.
All Matron at the hospital had said was that an experienced nurse was required for two weeks, in a private capacity. The costs of keep and travel to and from Ireland to be furnished, as well as a daily consideration. Lib knew nothing about the O’Donnells except that they had to be a family of means if they were cosmopolitan enough to send all the way to England for a better class of nurse. It occurred to her only now to wonder how they could know that the patient would need her services for no more nor less than a fortnight. Perhaps Lib was a temporary replacement for another nurse.
In any case, she’d be quite well paid for her trouble, and the novelty of the thing held some interest. At the hospital, Lib’s training was resented as much as it was appreciated, and only the more basic of her skills were required: feeding, changing dressings, bed-making.
She resisted the impulse to reach under her cloak and pull out her watch; it wouldn’t make the time go any faster, and the rain might get into the mechanism.
Another roofless cabin now, turned away from the road, its gabled walls accusing the sky. Weeds had had no success at covering up this ruin yet. Lib glimpsed a mess of black through the door-shaped hole; a recent conflagration, then. (But how did anything manage to catch fire in this waterlogged country?) Nobody had taken the trouble to clear away the charred rafters, let alone frame and thatch a new roof. Was it true that the Irish were impervious to improvement?
A woman in a filthy frilled cap was stationed on the verge, a knot of children in the hedge behind her. The rattle of the cart brought them forward with hands cupped high as if to catch the rain. Lib looked away, awkward.
“The hungry season,” muttered the driver.
But this was high summer. How could food be scarce now, of all times?
Her boots were speckled with mud and gravel spat up by the wheel. Several times the jaunting car lurched into a dun puddle deep enough that she had to cling to the bench so as not to be flung out.
More cabins, some with three or four windows. Barns, sheds. A two-storey farmhouse, then another. Two men turned from loading a wagon, and one said something to the other. Lib looked down at herself: Was there something odd about her travelling costume? Perhaps the locals were so shiftless, they’d break off work to goggle at any stranger.
Up ahead, whitewash glared from a building with a pointed roof and a cross on top, which meant a Roman Catholic chapel. Only when the driver reined in did Lib realize that they’d arrived at the village, although by English standards it was no more than a sorry-looking cluster of buildings.
She checked her watch now: almost nine, and the sun hadn’t set yet. The pony dropped its head and chewed a tuft. This appeared to be the sole street.
“You’re to put up at the spirit grocery.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Ryan’s.” The driver nodded left to a building with no sign.
This couldn’t be right. Stiff after the journey, Lib let the man hand her down. She shook her umbrella at arm’s length, rolled the waxy canvas, and buttoned it tight. She dried her hand on the inside of her cloak before she stepped into the low-beamed shop.
The reek of burning peat hit her. Apart from the fire smouldering under a massive chimney, only a couple of lamps lit the room, where a girl was nudging a canister into its row on a high shelf.
“Good evening,” said Lib. “I believe I may have been brought to the wrong place.”
“You’ll be the Englishwoman,” said the girl slightly too loudly, as if Lib were deaf. “Would you care to step into the back for a bit of supper?”
Lib held her temper. If there was no proper inn, and if the O’Donnell family couldn’t or wouldn’t accommodate the nurse they’d hired, then complaining would be no use.
She went through the door beside the chimney and found herself in a small, windowless room with two tables. One was occupied by a nun whose face was almost invisible behind the starched layers of her headdress. If Lib flinched a little, it was because she hadn’t seen the like for years; in England religious sisters didn’t go about in such garb for fear of provoking anti-Romish sentiment. “Good evening,” she said civilly.
The nun answered with a deep bow. Perhaps members of her order were discouraged from speaking to those not of their creed, or vowed to silence, even?
Lib sat at the other table, facing away from the nun, and waited. Her stomach growled – she hoped not loudly enough to be heard. There was a faint clicking that had to be coming from under the woman’s black folds: the famous rosary beads.
When at last the girl brought in the tray, the nun bent her head and whispered; saying grace before the meal. She was in her forties or fifties, Lib guessed, with slightly prominent eyes, and the meaty hands of a peasant.
An odd assortment of dishes: oat bread, cabbage, some kind of fish. “I was rather expecting potatoes,” Lib told the girl.
“‘Tis another month you’ll be waiting for them.”
Ah, now Lib understood why this was Ireland’s hungry season – potatoes weren’t harvested until the autumn.
Everything tasted of peat, but she set about clearing her plate. Since Scutari, where the nurses’ rations had been as short as the men’s, Lib had found herself incapable of wasting a bite.
Noise out in the grocery, and then a party of four squeezed into the dining room. “God save all here,” said the first man.
Not knowing the appropriate response, Lib nodded.
“And ye too.” It was the nun who murmured that, making the sign of the cross by touching her forehead, chest, left and right shoulders. Then she left the room – whether because she’d had all she wanted of her meagre portion or to surrender the second table to the newcomers, Lib couldn’t tell.
They were a raucous lot, these farmers and their wives. Had they already been drinking elsewhere all Sunday afternoon? Spirit grocery; now she understood the driver’s phrase. Not a haunted grocery, but one that served liquor.
From their chatter, which touched on some extraordinary wonder they could hardly believe although they’d seen it with their own eyes, Lib decided they must have been to a fair.
“‘Tis the other crowd are behind it, I’d say,” said a bearded man. His wife elbowed him, but he persisted. “Waiting on her hand and foot!”
She turned her head.
The stranger in the doorway tapped his waistcoat. “Dr. McBrearty.”
Excerpted from THE WONDER. Copyright © 2016 by Emma Donoghue. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The Party Wall
Catherine Leroux, translated by Lazer Lederhendler
(Monette and Angie)
The twisting wind wraps itself around Angie’s ankles, a ground-level wave that takes her by surprise. The wind, as a rule, does not linger at people’s feet. Except the strong, low wind produced by a passing train. As if to trip you up. She looks down to examine her shins, her knock-knees. The children she knows are simply thin, or else they are chubby, plump, fleshy. Angie is nine years old and as gnarled as a crone. She resembles the pine trees growing on mountaintops. The shape of her fingers and toes is complicated, and her elbows protrude from the middle of her spindly arms, two black pearls mounted on taut wires. She dreads the day her breasts will appear, convinced as she is that they will emerge, not like the pretty apples flaunted by the girls in junior high, but like two angular bumps, two angry fists pounding their way through her chest.
Inside, Monette is still negotiating with her sandals. Though perfectly capable of putting them on, she takes an inordinate amount of time to fasten the straps because even the slightest misalignment of the Velcro strips is intolerable to her. She attaches them, detaches them, repositions the hook side over the loop side with the concentration of a Tibetan monk, inspects her work, finds it wanting, and starts over. Under the silky rays of the sun, Angie does not lose patience. While waiting for her little sister, she contemplates the languid swaying of the willow, their tree, the biggest one on the street.
Mam told them, “It’s nice out. Go for a walk!” She will use the time to swab down the house, a house so old and memory-laden that cleaning it is well-nigh impossible. Still, come May, Mam scrubs everything, including the wooden floors made porous by the floodwaters and the windows turned chalky from being permanently fogged-up.
Monette finally comes out into the bright daylight, blinks and wipes a tear from the corner of her eye. Though dazzled, she manages to find her sister’s hand. As usual, she twitches at the touch of the callused palm, which reminds her of the rough side of Velcro, but the next instant her own skin nestles in it as if it were the comforting cloth of an old woollen blanket. Together, they walk down the four cracked concrete steps. The crack in the second-to-last stair looks like a dragon. She avoids treading on it. The pavement leading to the sidewalk is also broken and has weeds sprouting in the gaps. Mam does not pull them out and has taught her daughters to respect these humble shoots. “There’s no such thing as weeds. That’s just a name for some flowers thought up by racist gardeners.” Monette ruffles their petals with a caress.
As always, the moment they reach the street they instantly leave behind the world of home. Yet no fence separates the front yard from the avenue. There is, however, an invisible barrier that makes it possible to be completely oblivious of what transpires on the other side and that hides the house from strangers, Angie hopes. Two boys go by dribbling a basketball. They wear loose-fitting t-shirts and their skin is coated with a fine mist. Their voices are loud and they spout obscenities. Angie covers her younger sister’s ears. Monette has heard far worse, but Angie believes in the gesture of covering her ears, in the intention behind it. Once they’ve let the teenagers pass, Angie motions with her chin in the direction they’re to walk: south. Before starting out, Monette looks down, examines her sandals, hesitating momentarily. Then she sets off, her pudgy little hand welded to her sister’s.
The street is divided in such a lopsided way that it seems about to keel over, like a boat in which the passengers have all gathered on the same side. The houses on the eastern side are narrow and dilapidated, and the paint on most of them is peeling off in delicate white plumes; across the street, they are massive, stately, adorned with a complex arrangement of balconies and bay windows. Mam claims the railroad is the reason the east side of the block has such modest dwellings. No one well-off wants to move there, right beside the tracks. But surely, Angie says to herself, the residents across the way must also hear the whistle and the inhuman squealing of the train.
As usual, Monette pulls Angie by the hand to cross the road and walk past the luxurious homes, but her sister rarely gives in. The small houses remind Angie of her own; she seems to know them by name, and their windows, though cracked, watch the girls benevolently as they go by. By staying on this side, Angie feels she is restoring balance and keeping the neighbourhood from capsizing.
At the fifth intersection, the row of posh-looking residences tumbles over a wide cross street and gets dispersed in a middle-class district. The area, according to Mam, was developed years ago in the hope of attracting prosperous Black families. Today it’s almost deserted. Monette and Angie continue along a sparsely populated stretch of road riddled with vacant lots where the grasses reach dizzying heights and hide the crouching cats and opossums gnawing at their meagre prey.
They walk past a wrecking yard; recognizing the place, Monette starts to hop up and down and sets the heavy braids Angie had plaited that very morning dancing around her head. They come to a shack painted pink that exudes a warm odour of manure. Monette’s hand grows damp with excitement; she gives her sister a pleading look that is answered with an approving nod, at which she loosens her grip. Monette dashes ahead.
The enclosure looks empty, and Angie is afraid the child will throw a fit, but for now she shows no signs of discouragement. Monette resolutely tears little fistfuls of grass and dandelions out of the ditch and comes back to jiggle them between the slats in the fence while emitting sharp, amazingly precise sounds through her clumsy lips. A shape stirs in the shadows, and Angie’s heart inconspicuously leaps into her mouth. The swayback pony obediently steps forward. As always, Angie is overcome by a strange sensation at the sight of this horse, perpetually small, yet so old, so weary.
The animal chews tamely on the proffered snack, then Angie lifts up Monette so she can stroke – ever so lightly – its peeled muzzle, its scrawny croup, its ragged coat. From the back of the pink shed, a man wearing a flawless moustache appears and, beaming with pride, greets them. Old Craig is fond of his filly.
“What’s the horse’s name?”
“She’s not a horse, she’s a pony. Her name is Belle,” Craig replies patiently.
“How old is she?”
“Thirty-nine years old.”
Monette solemnly nods her head and stores the information in a place where it can slumber until something can make better sense of it. The old man enters the paddock and, pulling on the halter, leads the animal back toward the shed.
“She has to rest now. She’s working this afternoon,” Craig says, pointing to the junk wagon that he has been driving through the streets of Savannah for decades.
The little girl reluctantly lets the animal move away and returns to the sidewalk, where she once again takes her older sister’s callused hand. Angie and Belle resemble each other, but Monette does not understand why. Overhead, a military jet cuts through the sky and the droning of the cicadas. Having taken off from the nearby base, it streaks toward an unintelligible country where death is not content merely to lurk in the tall grass of vacant lots.
Excerpted from THE PARTY WALL. Copyright © Catherine Leroux, 2013. Translation copyright © Lazer Lederhendler, 2016. Excerpted by permission of Biblioasis international translation series. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The Two of Us
The House on Manor Close
We ate from pale green plates on an oval table in a square dining room adjoining the kitchen and linked to it by a sliding door. The French windows that led from the dining room to the garden were often steamed up, blurring the view. A shaded lamp suspended above the table rose and fell smoothly when you pushed or pulled the little handle beneath the bulb.
My father’s seat at the head of the table faced the back garden, its lawns, trees and banks of flowering shrubs so bright in summer that they almost hurt your eyes.
Mum’s place was opposite Dad, but most of the time she was in the kitchen, where she prepared every morsel that passed our lips and washed every dish, cup, knife, fork and table napkin that we ever used. She even buttered our bread for us and decided whether or not our toast would have crusts: this was the custom of the time, and quite unremarkable. On the other hand, although we sat down together at the table, we rarely ate the same meal, which was not.
While my father ate a pork chop with boiled cabbage and new potatoes, my older sister Julia and I might have cold chicken and lettuce with salad cream, and my mother a pork pie, beetroot, of which she was particularly fond, and peas. Occasionally there was one element – perhaps the potatoes, peas or beans from the garden – that featured in all the meals, linking them tenuously together. But mostly there was not.
On the kitchen side of the table sat the oldest of us three girls, Julia – officially Juliette, but adamantly opposed to the name’s romantic implications. I, Hazel, named after a tree planted on the weekend of my birth, sat opposite her, my back against the heating vent in the living room wall. April, still a baby, was fed earlier and then “put down.”
Plates were handed out from the kitchen and my mother told us what was coming and who it was for. If your plate contained something you were known to like, then you were in her good books, and it was important to seem grateful even though fried eggs might be the last thing on earth you fancied at that particular moment. If you were given something you had even once shown the faintest dislike for, she was either punishing you or reminding you that she could. We never argued over what we were given, though occasionally we attempted to exchange – beetroot for potato, sausage for chop. Mum said that what bothered her about this was the possibility of the tablecloth getting spoiled. Sometimes, unable to contain herself, she would pull the plates from our hands and perform the exchange herself, insisting that the entire meal was swapped so that you got three things you didn’t want along with the one you did. “Don’t fiddle about!” she said.
This was in suburbia, before the arrival of the avocado pear, and again, the food itself – meat, pies, potatoes, boiled vegetables and rudimentary but very fresh salads from the garden – was, in name at least, ordinary. But there were many staple items which Mum had never learned to successfully make. Yorkshire pudding was one, pastry another. These substances were different every time they appeared and could only be named from their context. Sometimes the Yorkshire pudding resembled scrambled egg, at other times it was more like a large, thick crisp. There was no way of predicting.
“What’s it like?” she’d ask. Neither I nor Julia answered, but my father had grown into the habit of considering the merits of whatever it was very carefully indeed and making a considered reply.
“I quite like the softness of it. I must say it goes extremely well with mustard.”
The reason for the inconsistency was simple. Despite her rigorousness in other areas of household management, such as cleaning and expenditure, Mum hated to be bound by measurements or recipes. She preferred to guess and she despised recipes for being so particular, so fussy about what they needed to be themselves. She simply wouldn’t accept it and gave them, as she gave us, what she thought they deserved.
About once a year something new would make its way into the repertoire.
“It said egg whites,” she would explain as she served it, “but there wasn’t quite enough flour and I couldn’t find the separator so I halved the number and used whole eggs. I don’t like vanilla so I changed it for cinnamon and I just didn’t bother with the pears.”
“The custardy bit is nice,” Dad responded, cautiously, while we all watched him. “What is it called, then?”
It didn’t really matter what he said, because my mother would only make whatever it was again if she herself had enjoyed it – and even if she had, and repeated the dish, it would not be the same the second time around, not even remotely like.
Excerpted from THE TWO OF US. Copyright © Kathy Page, 2016. Excerpted by permission of A John Metcalf Book, an imprint of Biblioasis . All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
THE ATOMIC AGE
The children walked with their necks set up as evolutionary magnets. Who knew that our thyroids attracted radioactive iodine? Who knew that when the iodine flew over grass, flew over cows, flew over furniture, it flew into the bodies of children, it flew into their parents? Who knew that reindeer in Norway had radioactive thyroids from Chernobyl? Who knew that cesium-137 lasts for centuries? Who knew that the rocky land we look at from a plane is not done with us yet? Who knew that the radioactive dust from 1957 was still sitting in the rocky canyons below, in 2006?
Vivienne Pink, photographer of war, sat at the window of a plane making its way west, ascending from the sea level city of Toronto on the shores of Lake Ontario. Her final destination was the northern Mojave Desert, where fighter jets began their routine flights to Iraq and Afghanistan, where airmen were trained, and tens of thousands of servicemen had worked and become atomic veterans. Military land, where unions were tough and strong and boldly Western, and the sky took up the top two-thirds of any landscape. Vivienne Pink and her Olympus OM-1, by her side for thirty-three years, were taking a forced break from conflict zones. She was on an assignment to photograph fighting men before they deployed. Men on their last night before they flew out to die. She had made the assignment herself. She had her book half-done. It was December 26, 2006. She had five days to get a bunch of keepers.
She looked down at the Earth, the eyes of the avid hunter scanning over the wing to the canyons rising and falling in their mosaics and tunnels – rust, purple manganese, pale powdery green, mica, iron, gold, silver, red rock, red earth. The skin of the nation. Vivienne got out her camera: crusty patches appeared, white crust sinking into dark cratered areas. A shiny dome popped up beside a deep cut. Maybe it was an industrial cyst. Ahead pale green liquid swirled into red earth, bumps rose in purple and the world looked like a slide under a microscope, a cell with a story. This was the thrill. This was why you sat at the window. The greatest abstract art exhibit was right down there, on the planet. Well, it was the planet itself. Inside her body, similar-looking cells came and went, galaxies floating through her bloodstream.
A neck of rock appeared. She snapped it, seeing a folded part that looked like an ear. The first ear. The last ear of a damaged man. A polished chute. Vivienne looked at her right arm at the window. There was a three-inch white patch on her pink-olive flesh, a white patch with a distinct red rim. Down below she saw the fractal of her arm passing under the wing. Our flesh is the cousin of the earth, with the illusion it is unrelated. The white patch had first appeared after she was in Iraq in 1986 at Samarra, investigating the underground mustard gas facility of Saddam Hussein. She had gone up the famous minaret and shook in the wind going round and round the narrow spire with no handrail, trying to see from the heights if any of the poison gas trucks could be spotted. Nothing. But her skin afterwards had started scaling, and her lungs became more prone to pneumonia, and the Mesopotamian sand she breathed in grated her lung passageways more than it had before. The doctors said her lungs thought they had been placed in enemy territory and so her passageways attacked her body, becoming fiery and inflamed. A cloud tower came to the window and peeked in. She loved clouds as seat companions. This, too, was why you sat at the window: clouds were swell seatmates, they kept silent.
Vivienne kept her nose pressed against the window: the earth was a homeless cell, and still it stood tall and it was a glorious ruined beauty. A billion years was a drop of water.
Nobody sat beside her in the middle seat or the aisle, but on the other side of the aisle three men sat: two with real short hair, one of them in khakis with a pressed crease on the legs. He was looking out the window. The other, in the middle, was in light grey wool pants and watching a movie on the television screen: Sean Penn and Naomi Watts in a car. Naomi’s eyes were closed, she was drunk, and Sean Penn loosened her seat belt; Sean the man with a newly transplanted heart, the heart of Naomi’s dead husband. It was 21 Grams. The first time she saw it, bootleg in Fallujah, was with her pal intelligence agent Val Gold in a windowless room in a safe house. Val said, “Imagine another man is using your husband’s heart to live. Imagine your body without water. It will weigh only twenty-one grams.”
Vivienne lifted her camera, watching the man in the middle as he moved his face close to the tiny screen. His eyes met the eyes of Sean Penn. For a moment the tender emotion the actor brought to the screen transferred to the viewer, who moved his head closer as if to solace the distressed woman in the car. Vivienne grabbed that shot.
The man in the aisle seat had greasier hair and looked too pale for his white skin, like he might smell of last night’s beer drama. He had on a harmless checked shirt in non-saturated blues, the shirttails out, giving away that he had buttoned in a hurry – one button off. He scratched his hair and the semi-permanent-looking sweat stains under his arm showed. He had a large backpack that he rested his big white sneakers on, blocking the clean-cut spit-and-polish men from getting out if the plane went down. Vivienne pictured him as a rock climber flying to the Nevada canyons, a guy in a hurry with low blood sugar. And those shoes: way too new. Average height, average weight, Caucasian, late thirties, kept that pack close, afraid to even put it up top. Why? No bombs today, please.
The drinks wagon came by. Vivienne ordered an apple juice, no ice. Never trust ice on a plane. Never trust ice, anywhere. The pleasant thin steward put ice in the plastic cup. Vivienne repeated, No ice, adding a darling, smiling and putting her eyes into the smile. The steward did not mind, he gave a mea culpa smile back, dumped the ice out, filled the cup with the apple juice and handed her the can, too. Plane and shadow flew over the empty land. Mountains rose up to meet the wings.
The plane headed right for the side of a mountain, then it tilted and banked over the last mountains hiding the surprise sparkling down in the military valley.
It was their destination, the glittering cup in the desert. Area 24. Also called by its Spanish name, Las Vegas.
Here in the northern Mojave the light was prodigious, it was the beaming of plenty, a wide-open crystal clinic showing how the desert bent objects and bent light itself, how the sky seemed stoned and nutty and bright. Fighter planes rose and fell, shuttles flew men to work at weapons testing areas and jet testing areas and nuclear waste storage areas and war rehearsal areas and explosives practice areas and counterterrorism and remote drone piloting areas. Men sat in casinos who were third- and fourth-generation locals who had worked the hard land and serviced the hard war work. This had been a military valley for half a century; it was busy and employed, for now the country was in its fourth year of a new big war. And this was a key spot.
Before there was Chernobyl wind, before there was Three Mile Island rain, there were the Nevada Nagasakis, there were the Nevada Hiroshimas. This was the nuclear valley inside the nuclear ranges. And the iodine waited for your neck, that radiation magnet. The wind sought even the birds of flight.
Excerpted from DEATH VALLEY. Copyright © Susan Perly, 2016. Excerpted by permission of Buckrider Books, an imprint of Wolsak and Wynn Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Willem De Kooning’s Paintbrush
Kerry Lee Powell
In a Kindgdom Beneath the Sea
Today’s the day Mitchell Burnhope gets the royal shit kicked out of him. That’s the consensus at the bar. Marie-Odile’s bear-shaped brothers are already brooding in the rear, chowing down on a late breakfast of corn dogs and Slush Puppies from the Texaco across the road. Every few minutes one of them looks up at the door with his unibrow beetled. I’m still shocked at how many girls allow their own flesh and blood inside this place to watch them grind it out onstage. We had one a few years ago who went everywhere with her little bluehaired grandma until Frank had to kick her to the curb for fencing stolen goods from her jumbo-sized handbag. Crooked grandma aside, Frank is generally a big-hearted guy, likes his regulars to hang out before opening time and after hours, says it makes the club seem more homely. Like one big happy family, where the faces of the daughters who’ve quit or been fired or disappeared are swapped out with fresh new faces like flower arrangements in a fancy restaurant.
Marie-Odile pushes past me in her butterfly kimono, a trail of bubble-gum vapours and vanilla musk wafting in her wake. Her brothers walked out of a Grimm’s fairy tale and laid their woodsman axes at the door a couple of years back. It didn’t take them long to get accustomed to life in town. Everyone in the club is terrified of them now, and of Marie-Odile too insofar as she belongs to them. She only flinches a little when one brother reaches out to lightly slap her as she sits back down between them. His rings catch in her hair. He untangles himself while the other reaches for his ringing cellphone. Rumours have been floating around that Marie-Odile is not long for this world, that the brothers have found a spot for her in an upcoming porno flick, are arranging to meet a guy who knows a guy high up in the adult movie scene.
In my day there were girls who dreamed about dancing on Broadway or in the ballet or who just wanted to save up enough money to run away from their crazy boyfriends. Girls who wanted to make the world outside their hotel rooms disappear with a bottle of Southern Comfort and a handful of sleeping pills. But it’s all big business now. A whole intricate system that Marie-Odile’s brothers have begun to acquaint themselves with. A plum role in a porno will potentially land her gigs in every upscale club on the circuit, and other spinoffs too. Enough to keep a whole host of brothers in Harleys and firearms and cocaine. At the moment, though, she’s just a wide-eyed beginner with the odd five-minute spot onstage, panic-stricken and a little unsteady in her six-inch heels. Mostly she sits offside, picking up tricks of the trade from the feature dancers and ignoring the overtures of romantics like Mitchell Burnhope.
Marie-Odile is my replacement. It’s unspoken, but everybody knows. Frank’s been warning me for ages. I can’t remember the last time my name was on the roster. I’m strictly the girl with the cleavage who mothers the old boys at the back blowing their paycheques on overpriced booze. It’s no lie that I’ve been letting myself go of late. And because my mind has started to wander, my body has gone astray, has started to graze on whatever it sets its eyes upon. Wing nights and crinkle-cut fries and every kind of awful snack in the Texaco aisles. Another pound of flab on that ass, Frank tells me, and I’m three deep in the heap, out in the cold. Fine, I tell him. Maybe it stinks less like a gym locker room out there.
Maybe it’s no coincidence, as far as any of us is concerned, that today’s feature dancer is Destiny. She steps onto the stage, flips her bleached hair, and tilts her head back. She has that heartless hundred-mile stare. The joke around here is that she chose her dancer name after taking a good long look into the future and deciding she didn’t give a shit. The daytime regulars are coming out of the woodwork and taking their places at the usual tables. Destiny keeps herself to herself, has no boyfriend or “manager” or bearish brothers to either protect or abuse her or siphon off her earnings. Trying to be friendly, I asked her once where she came from. She mentioned a mining town up north, then clamped her skinny lips shut.
The only other thing we know about her is that she loves her pet cockatiels more than anything on earth, lets them fly around uncaged in her hotel room. It isn’t that unusual. A lot of dancers travel from club to club with pets to make life on the road more bearable. The cockatiels shit on the bedspread and on her clothes but Destiny doesn’t notice or care. Judging from the amount of bills rolled into coke straws on her hotel room floor and the residues on her dressing table, she’s not often in the frame of mind for righteous housekeeping. She’s unsteady at the pole today, and Frank is frowning with his fist on his chin while he watches her. A few more false moves and she’ll be out on her ass like me except a whole lot faster because she never bothered to get in Frank’s or anyone else’s good books. Vlada says she’s a bad woman. And Vlada should know. She’s made a character study of every dancer the Coronet Hotel has ever hired.
“We’re all bad, I say. “We’re strippers.”
Vlada’s an odd bird too. With her whiskers and her hooked nose, she looks just like the kind of witch you might expect to mutter curses and have uncanny insights. Over time I’ve come to realize that most of her pronouncements stem from an obsession with personal hygiene. I guess you pick up some strange ideas about humanity when you spend five years in one of Stalin’s gulags. She mutters and leans her mop against the wall to pat my back. But it’s not pity that has Vlada clucking over me. A million or so years before I started stripping down in the club I was a chambermaid upstairs, stripping sheets, scrubbing toilets, and helping Vlada heave around a dickywheeled housekeeping cart stuffed with towels and miniature soaps. For this, I have earned her undying loyalty. I should get a tin star and a sickle for my hard time.
Back when the town was heading somewhere, before the factories closed and this whole side of the sprawl died, the Coronet was the fanciest place around. I’ve seen photos of the exterior and the grounds, which had an acre or so of formal rose gardens and a cute little heart-shaped arbour they used for wedding photos. People like the Shriners and the Chamber of Commerce had their conventions here in the sixties, back when all the men looked like Sinatra or Pat Boone. Sometimes I try to picture what the inside was like before they hacked it up into smaller rooms. There are traces of former grandeur: peeling cherubs and the remains of a marquetry dance floor in the storeroom where I sneak cigarettes. But the place is sinking like Atlantis. Any day now they’ll paste a CONDEMNED sign on the door. But not before Mitchell Burnhope turns up in his oversized coat and gets himself pounded into Beefaroni in the parking lot.
They didn’t have a chambermaid’s uniform big enough to fit me when I started. It’s not like I was big on purpose, I simply never gave a thought to anything that happened below my collarbone. I wasn’t brought up that way. After the receptionist found a cook’s apron to wrap around the spot where the zipper wouldn’t close, Vlada led me up to a room on the second floor and flung the doors open like she was opening the gates to a lost civilization. Scarves and stockings were coiled around a pool of melted ice cream. A tipped jar of nail polish drooled onto the TV screen. A sequinned belt was curled around some gnawed steak bones and a cigarette-studded slice of pie. Vlada warned me to separate the rotting meat from the clothing, handed me a bucket and a few garbage bags, and pointed to the cleaning supplies on the trolley. Then she handed me a paper sash with the word “Sanitized” printed on it.
“Don’t forget to put ‘Miss America’ on the toilet,” she said, grinning.
Excerpted from WILLEM DE KOONING’S PAINTBRUSH. Copyright © 2016 by Kerry Lee Powell. Excerpted by permission of Harper Avenue, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The Woman in the Thames:
He was the oldest son.
He wore his black moustaches long in the manner of an outlaw and his right thumb hooked at his hip where a Colt Navy should have hung. He was not yet forty but already his left knee went stiff in a damp cold from an exploding Confederate shell at Antietam. He had been sixteen then and the shrapnel had stood out from his knee like a knuckle of extra bone while the dirt heaved and sprayed around him. Since that day he had twice been thought killed and twice come upon his would-be killers like an avenging spectre. He had shot twenty-three men and one boy outlaws all and only the boy’s death did not trouble him. He entered banks with his head low, his eyebrows drawn close, his huge menacing hands empty as if fixed for strangling. When he lurched aboard crowded streetcars men instinctively pulled away and women followed him with their eyelashes, bonnets tipped low. He had not been at home more than a month at a stretch for five years now though he loved his wife and daughters, loved them with the fear a powerful man feels who is given to breaking things. He had long yellow teeth, a wide face, sunken eyes, pupils as dark as the twist of a man’s intestines.
He loathed London. Its cobbled streets were filthy even to a man whose business was filth, who would take a saddle over a bed and huddle all night in a brothel’s privy with his Colt drawn until the right arse stumbled in. Here he had seen nothing green in a month that was not holly or a cut bough carted in from a countryside he could not imagine. On Christmas he had watched the poor swarm a man in daylight, all clutched rags and greed; on New Year’s he had seen a lady kick a watercress girl from the step of a carriage, then curse the child’s blood spotting her laces. A rot ate its way through London, a wretchedness older and more brutal than any he had known in Chicago.
He was not the law. No matter. In America there was not a thief who did not fear him. By his own measure he feared no man living and only one man dead and that man his father.
It was a bitter January and that father six months buried when he descended at last into Bermondsey in search of an old operative of his father’s, an old friend. Wading through the night’s fog, another man’s blood barnacling his knuckles, his own business in London nearly done.
He was dressed like a gentleman though he had lost his gloves and he clutched his walking stick in one fist like a cudgel. A stain spotted his cuffs that might have been soot or mud but was not either. He had been waiting for what passed for morning in this miserable winter and paused now in a narrow alley at the back of Snow Fields, opera hat collapsed in one hand, frost creaking in the timbers of the shopfronts, not sure it had come. Fog spilled over the cobblestones, foul and yellow and thick with coal fumes and a bitter stink that crusted the nostrils, scalded the back of the throat. That fog was everywhere, always, drifting through the streets and pulling apart low to the ground, a living thing. Some nights it gave off a low hiss, like steam escaping a valve.
Six weeks ago he had come to this city to interrogate a woman who last night after a long pursuit across Blackfriars Bridge had leaped the railing and vanished into the river. He thought of the darkness, the black water foaming outward, the slapping of the Yard sergeants’ boots on the granite setts. He could still feel the wet scrape of the bridge bollards against his wrists.
She had been living lawful in this city as if to pass for respectable and in this way absolve herself of a complicated life but as with anything it had not helped. She had been calling herself LeRoche but her real name was Reckitt and ten years earlier she had been an associate of the notorious cracksman and thief Edward Shade. That man Shade was the one he really hunted and until last night the Reckitt woman had been his one certain lead. She’d had small sharp teeth, long white fingers, a voice low and vicious and lovely.
The night faded, the streets began to fill. In the upper windows of the building across the street a pale sky glinted, reflected the watery silhouettes below, the passing shadows of the early horses hauling their waggons, the huddled cloth caps and woollens of the outsides perched on their sacks. The iron-shod wheels chittering and squeaking in the cold. He coughed and lit a cigar and smoked in silence, his small deep-set eyes predatory as any cutthroat’s.
After a time he ground the cigar under one heel and punched out his hat and put it on. He withdrew a revolver from his pocket and clicked it open and dialed through its chambers for something to do and when he could wait no longer he hitched up one shoulder and started across.
If asked he would say he had never met a dead nail didn’t want to go straight. He would say no man on the blob met his own shadow and did not flinch. He would run a hand along his unshaved jaw and glower down at whatever reporter swayed in front of him and mutter some unprintable blasphemy in flash dialect and then he would lean over and casually rip that page from the reporter’s ring-coil notebook. He would say lack of education is the beginning of the criminal underclass and both rights and laws are failing the country. A man is worth more than a horse any day though you would never guess it to see it. The cleverest jake he’d ever met was a sharper and the kindest jill a whore and the world takes all types. Only the soft-headed think a thing looks like what it is.
In truth he was about as square as a broken jaw but then he’d never met a cop any different so what was the problem and whose business was it anyway.
Excerpted from BY GASLIGHT. Copyright © 2016 Steven Price. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing
In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life. That year, 1989, my mother flew to Hong Kong and laid my father to rest in a cemetery near the Chinese border. Afterwards, distraught, she rushed home to Vancouver where I had been alone. I was ten years old.
Here is what I remember:
My father has a handsome, ageless face; he is a kind but melancholy man. He wears glasses that have no frames and the lenses give the impression of hovering just before him, the thinnest of curtains. His eyes, dark brown, are guarded and unsure; he is only 39 years old. My father’s name was Jiang Kai and he was born in a small village outside of Changsha. Later on, when I learned my father had been a renowned concert pianist in China, I thought of the way his fingers tapped the kitchen table, how they pattered across countertops and along my mother’s soft arms all the way to her fingertips, driving her crazy and me into fits of glee. He gave me my Chinese name, Jiang Li-ling, and my English one, Marie Jiang. When he died, I was only a child, and the few memories I possessed, however fractional, however inaccurate, were all I had of him. I’ve never let them go.
In my twenties, in the difficult years after both my parents had passed away, I gave my life wholeheartedly to numbers – observation, conjecture, logic and proof, the tools we mathematicians have not only to interpret, but simply to describe the world. For the last decade I have been a professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada. Numbers have allowed me to move between the unimaginably large and the magnificently small; to live an existence away from my parents, their affairs and unrequited dreams and, I used to think, my own.
Some years ago, in 2010, while walking in Vancouver’s Chinatown, I passed a store selling DVDs. I remember that it was pouring rain and the sidewalks were empty. Concert music rang from two enormous speakers outside the shop. I knew the music, Bach’s Sonata for Piano and Violin No. 4, and I was drawn towards it as keenly as if someone were pulling me by the hand. The counterpoint, holding together composer, musicians and even silence, the music, with its spiralling waves of grief and rapture, was everything I remembered.
Dizzy, I leaned against the glass.
And suddenly I was in the car with my father. I heard rain splashing up over the tires and my father, humming. He was so alive, so beloved, that the incomprehensibility of his suicide grieved me all over again. By then, my father had been dead for two decades, and such a pure memory of him had never come back to me. I was thirty-one years old.
I went inside the store. The pianist, Glenn Gould, appeared on a flatscreen: he and Yehudi Menuhin were performing the Bach sonata I had recognized. There was Glenn Gould hunched over the piano, wearing a dark suit, hearing patterns far beyond the range of what most of us are given to perceive, and he was … so familiar to me, like an entire language, a world, I had forgotten.
In 1989, life had become a set of necessary routines for my mother and me: work and school, television, food, sleep. My father’s first departure happened at the same time as momentous events occurring in China, events which my mother watched obsessively on CNN. I asked her who these protesters were, and she said they were students and everyday people. I asked if my father was there, and she said, “No, it’s Tiananmen Square in Beijing.” The demonstrations, bringing over a million Chinese citizens into the streets, had begun in April, when my father still lived with us, and continued after he disappeared to Hong Kong. Then, on June 4th, and in the days and weeks following the massacre, my mother wept. I watched her night after night. Ba had defected from China in 1978 and was forbidden from re-entering the country. But my incomprehension attached itself to the things I could see: those chaotic, frightening images of people and tanks, and my mother in front of the screen.
That summer, as if in a dream, I continued my calligraphy lessons at the nearby cultural centre, using brush and ink to copy line after line of Chinese poetry. But the words I could recognize – big, small, girl, moon, sky (?, ?, ?, ?, ?) – were few. My father spoke Mandarin and my mother Cantonese, but I was fluent only in English. At first, the puzzle of the Chinese language had seemed a game, a pleasure, but my inability to understand began to trouble me. Over and over, I wrote characters I couldn’t read, making them bigger and bigger until excess ink soaked the flimsy paper and tore it. I didn’t care. I stopped going.
In October, two police officers came to our door. They informed my mother that Ba was gone, and that the coroner’s office in Hong Kong would handle the file. They said Ba’s death was a suicide. Then, quiet (qù) became another person living inside our house. It slept in the closet with my father’s shirts, trousers and shoes, it guarded his Beethoven, Prokofiev and Shostakovich scores, his hats, armchair and special cup. Quiet (?) moved into our minds and stormed like an ocean inside my mother and me. That winter, Vancouver was even more grey and wet than usual, as if the rain was a thick sweater we couldn’t remove. I fell asleep certain that, in the morning, Ba would wake me as he always had, his voice tugging me from sleep, until this delusion compounded the loss, and hurt more than what had come before.
Weeks crept by, and 1989 disappeared inside 1990. Ma and I ate dinner on the sofa every night because there was no space on our dining table. My father’s official documents – certificates of various kinds, tax declarations – had already been organized, but the odds and ends persisted. As Ma investigated the apartment more thoroughly, other bits of paper came to light, music scores, a handful of letters my father had written but never sent (“Sparrow, I do not know if this letter will reach you, but …”) and ever more notebooks. As I watched these items increase, I imagined my mother believed that Ba would reincarnate as a piece of paper. Or maybe she believed, as the ancients did, that words written on paper were talismans, and could somehow protect us from harm.
Most nights, Ma would sit among them, still in her office clothes.
I tried not to bother her. I stayed in the adjoining living room and heard, now and then, the nearly soundless turning of pages.
The qù of her breathing.
Rain exploding and slicing down the window panes.
We were suspended in time.
Over and over, the No. 29 electric bus clattered past.
I fantasized conversations. I tried to imagine Ba reborn in the underworld, buying another new diary, using a different currency, and slipping his change into a new coat pocket, a lightweight coat made of feathers or maybe a cloak of camel wool, a coat sturdy enough for both heaven and the underworld.
Meanwhile, my mother distracted herself by trying to find my father’s family, wherever they might be, to tell them that their long-lost son or brother or uncle no longer survived in this world. She began searching for Ba’s adoptive father, a man who had once lived in Shanghai and had been known as “the Professor.” He was the only family Ba had ever mentioned. The search for information was slow and painstaking; there was no e-mail or internet back then and so it was easy for Ma to send a letter but difficult to obtain a true answer. My father had left China a long time ago and if the Professor were still alive, he would be a supremely old man.
The Beijing we saw on television, with mortuaries and grieving families, with tanks stationed at the intersections, bristling with rifles, was a world away from the Beijing my father had known. And yet, I sometimes think, not so different after all.
It was a few months later, in March 1990, that my mother showed me the Book of Records. That night, Ma was seated at her usual place at the dining table, reading. The notebook in her hand was tall and narrow, the dimensions of a miniature door. It had a loose binding of walnut-coloured cotton string.
Long past my bedtime, Ma suddenly noticed me.
“What’s wrong with you!” she said. And then, confused by her own question: “Have you finished your homework? What time is it?”
I had finished ages ago and had been watching a horror movie on mute. I still remember: a man had just been killed with an ice pick. “It’s midnight,” I said, disturbed, because the man had been soft as dough.
My mother extended a hand and I went to her. She closed one arm around my waist and squeezed. “Do you want to see what I’m reading?”
I leaned over the notebook and stared at the gathering of words. Chinese characters tracked down the page like animal prints in the snow.
“It’s a story,” Ma said.
“Oh. What kind of story?”
“I think it’s a novel. There’s an adventurer named Da-wei who sets sail to America and a heroine named May Fourth who walks across the Gobi Desert …”
I stared harder but the words remained unreadable.
“There was a time when people copied out entire books by hand,” Ma said. “The Russians called it samizdat, the Chinese called it … well, I don’t think we have a name. Look how dirty this notebook is, there’s even bits of grass on it. Goodness knows how many people carried it all over the place. … it’s decades older than you, Li-ling.”
I wondered: What wasn’t? I asked if this notebook had been copied by Ba.
My mother shook her head. She said the handwriting was beautiful, the work of a refined calligrapher, while my father’s writing was only so-so. “This notebook is one chapter from something longer. Here it says: Number 17. It doesn’t say who the author is, but look, here’s a title, the Book of Records.”
She set the notebook down. On the dining table, my father’s papers had the appearance of whitecaps, surging forward, about to crest off the surface and explode onto the carpet. All our mail was here, too. Since the New Year, Ma had begun receiving letters from Beijing, condolences from musicians in the Central Philharmonic who had only lately learned of my father’s death. Ma read these letters with a dictionary at hand because the letters were written in simplified Chinese, which she had never learned. Educated in Hong Kong, my mother had studied the traditional Chinese script. But on the mainland, in the 1950s, a new, simpler script had become law in Communist China. Thousands of words had changed; for instance, “to write” (xiˇe) went from 寫 to 写, and “to know” (shí) went from 識 to 识. Even “Communist Party” (gòng chaˇ n daˇ ng) went from 共 產 黨 to 共 产 党 . Sometimes Ma could see the word’s former self, other times she guessed at meanings. She said it was like reading a letter from the future, or talking to someone who had turned their back on her. All this was complicated by the fact that she rarely read in Chinese anymore, and expressed most of her thoughts in English. She didn’t like my speaking Cantonese because, as she said, “Your accent is completely crooked.”
“It’s cold in here,” I whispered. “Let’s put on our pyjamas and go to bed.”
Ma stared at the notebook, not even half-listening.
“Mother will be tired in the morning,” I persisted. “Mother will hit snooze twenty times.”
She smiled but her eyes beneath her glasses tightened against something. “Go to bed,” she said. “Don’t wait up for Mother.”
I kissed her soft cheek. She said, “What did the Buddhist say to the pizza maker?”
“Make me one with everything.”
I laughed and groaned and laughed again, then shivered, thinking of the victim on the television, his doughy skin. Smiling, she nudged me firmly away.
Excerpted from DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING. Copyright © 2016 Madeleine Thien. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division ofPenguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
The Best Kind of People
ALMOST A DECADE earlier, a man with a .45-70 Marlin hunting rifle walked through the front doors of Avalon Hills prep school. He didn’t know that he was about to become a living symbol of the age of white men shooting into crowds. He hadn’t slept in four days. He was the kind of angry that only made sense outside of language. He had walked three miles from his new studio apartment above Harry’s Cottage Times Bait Shop, oblivious to the downpour, the thin rip along the seam of his right leather boot. Soaked. Unaware. He walked, a head without a body. A head with one single thought, looped and distorted.
Students attending all twelve grades were amassed in classrooms, a blur of uniform plaid, settling in after the first bell. Except for Sadie Woodbury. She was standing in front of an open locker, retrieving her lucky koala bear eraser and straightening her thick brown bangs in a heart-shaped magnetized mirror. The sparkling unicorn sticker at the apex of the heart was beginning to peel away from the plastic glass. It was class speech day in the fifth grade. She had five yellow index cards in her kilt pocket with point-form notes In Praise of Democracy in America. She tongued a mass of orange peach gum to the top of her mouth, flavourless, unwilling to discard it just yet. Her parents didn’t allow chewing gum. Amanda had pressed the white paper strip into her palm on the playground before the first morning bell.
She saw him behind her in the mirror’s reflection. He was a smudge of indecipherable movement.
THE GIRL WAS not part of the plan. He’d drawn a map using a feathered red marker on the back of a pizza box. There was no girl in the diagram. It used to be a ceremonial drug. It was called crystal. A jewel. Like all party drugs, it had purpose. It wasn’t like they make it seem now, on the commercials, like your life is over. They all had jobs and near-completed graduate degrees and they went to Burning Man and electronic music festivals and then back to work on Monday. He did it once or twice a year with friends and the point was to dance, dance, dance. Large groups of regular people. But friends who had jobs and babies now averted their eyes on the street. It didn’t used to be a big deal.
Except no one else did it anymore, and he had skin like punctured and torn fabric.
He stood still, staring at her, the gun hanging from a leather strap around his right shoulder. His grandfather used to hunt with that gun. Hounds at their heels. He had a daughter at this school. He’d forgotten about her too. He didn’t think it was possible, that a son could be disinherited, disowned, as an adult. That he would go “too far.” He never left this town. He didn’t go anywhere. He came to Sunday dinners when he remembered it was Sunday. He was struggling. But every addict is a liar. When he said that, he wanted to be excused from anything he did or said. He just needed to stop being punished by everyone.
SADIE CLOSED HER locker. The sound startled him. He blinked in a way that meant to wish her away from sight. He was not a killer of children, he knew, despite all evidence to the contrary. Even he had his standards, for fuck’s sake.
Who have I become? Am I a killer of anyone? These questions broke through the concentrated wall of destructive will, and then dissolved. He hadn’t thought this through. Hailstones pelted the arched front windows as it dawned on him. The black and white floor tile was messy with slush and the imprint of over six hundred children’s boots. He noted the weather and its impact on his body. He thought about turning back; but his focus returned. Nothing had been fair since his first black eye. He took the rifle off his shoulder. He cradled it in his arms as though it were a parcel to be delivered.
Even this he couldn’t do right. What kind of man can’t hold a gun?
If his dealer hadn’t gone to sleep finally, he wouldn’t have to be here.
Everyone is against him.
It’s always someone else’s fault, have you ever noticed that? Every story you tell, it’s always about someone who has done you wrong. But you’re the common denominator. She’d said this as she was pulling on a pair of beige cotton tights at the edge of her bed, getting ready for work, her hands shaking with rage. Her big toe poked through a hole in the right foot. He had been apologizing, begging her forgiveness for banging on her door in the middle of the night. When she’d let him in, he’d crawled on top of her and she’d had to push him off. But she wasn’t as strong as he was, and eventually she just lay still, clenching her jaw and willing him to die.
When will you ever take responsibility for your own life? When will you grow up? He didn’t have any money to give her for a morning-after pill. She’d grabbed a roll of twenties from the emergency cookie tin on top of the fridge. It was a bright red tin his mother had filled with Valentine cupcakes, before she had stopped talking to him and after she’d all but adopted his ex, whom she described as having “the patience of a saint.” You’re pathetic, she’d said. He’d crumpled in the corner, agreeing with her. That only made it worse. Your self-pity is disgusting.
The rage spiked.
His grip around the rifle tightened. The pad of his index finger, slippery with sweat, touched the trigger. He remembered what the gun was for. But the girl looked to him so much like his own daughter, the one he’d last seen by accident, through a window at the community centre where she was practising gymnastics dance, twirling a long pink and green ribbon through the air.
SADIE STARED AT him for a beat, blowing a half-assed bubble that popped before fully forming. She wasn’t certain, from this distance, what she was seeing, but her heart had accelerated involuntarily. It took only a few seconds more to understand danger. The man lowered the rifle, pointing it at her, then put it back on his shoulder. She brought into focus some motion behind him.
THE MAN THOUGHT, Fuck it. I can turn it around. I can turn it around. This doesn’t have to be the way it ends for me. I can change. I CAN CHANGE! All at once he was euphoric, coming back into his own body.
Excerpted from THE BEST KIND OF PEOPLE. Copyright © 2016 Zoe Whittall. Excerpted by permission of House of Anansi Press Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.