Thursday, June 24, 2010

My life: Cancer

One lesson is that it's good to be young and stupid.
Dr. Ferguson, the surgeon, was all serious. I’d been referred to him by Dr. Gossage, father of the many children dubbed Gossage’s Sausages. I was 18, but my mother had been summoned to the appointment too.
I had a mole removed from my calf a week earlier - kind of blackish red and nobbly. An hour in hospital, a little freezing, a couple of stitches and on my way.
Now the test results were back.
I didn’t really pay attention. Biopsy, juvenile melanoma, he said. I saw the sun streaking on the tiles, heard a little traffic outside, admired the examining table with its paper covering neatly down the middle. He was a serious looking, white-haired and upright, holding himself in. Probably not that old, really, but when you’re 18, then 35 is the new 80.
Uh-uh, fine, I say. I’ll get some assignments from my instructors – I was in second year CEGEP, a Quebec two-year bridge between Grade 11 and a three-year university degree. In a week or two, we can schedule whatever it is you want to do.
Tomorrow, he said, in the morning, be at the hospital.
That should have been a clanging, flashing signal that all was not well – that calamity and sorrow, in fact, might lurk around the next corner,
But not for one second was I worried.
Perhaps there was tiny bit of willful blindness.
Mostly, it was the sense of indestructibility of the young male. It was not possible that anything physically could be wrong with me. That my body would turn on me.
Remarkably, truly remarkably, I was never troubled. Never frightened. Never contemplated, literally, the possibility that my time on this planet was done, before it had really even started. I slept soundly.
I showed up at the hospital and was shaved – my left leg - and drugged. Count backwards from ten, the doctor said as I stared into the oval light above the operating table. He, wearing a blue mask, placed a plastic mouthpiece on me. I tasted garlic in the back of my throar, counted 10-9-8 and lost consciousness.
I awoke, sort of, four hours later in post-op. Apparently threw up on a nurse, then slept another hour before they wheeled me to a room, shared with a moaning man
I awoke with a great chunk of my left calf missing and a thick bandage on my thigh, where Dr. Ferguson had shaved off a layer of skin and grafted it over the hole. My calf ached. Some of the muscle had been cut. My thigh was merely alarming. I had, at least for eight square inches, been skinned alive.
I was able to order meals, marking a little badly copied form each day. White toast tomorrow, or brown. Oatmeal, or cream of wheat? Chicken soup, or vegetable? Jello or fruit salad?
OK, they were not real choices. Jello and canned fruit salad have, aside from the lurid colours of the former, much in common – cold, sweetish, neither mushy nor crunchy. A texture for which no word has been created.
The food was not that good.
But the chance to choose was wonderful. When I lived in Toronto, we went by train to Montreal. My father was the Toronto advertising sales manager for a Montreal newspaper, and must have had meetings. We stayed at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel and ordered room service the first night. I had a chicken sandwich and chocolate milk, a stemmed glass resting in an ice bucket, with a white crimped cardboard lid. And television, black and white, I think.
I had never been able to sleep on my back.
So I finally turned on my side in the night, although my leg hurt. I looked at the steel bars in the bed and then fell asleep.
In the morning the gauze bandage on my thigh where the skin had been removed – maybe two by four inches – was a rusty red. Laying on my side meant the skin cracked and bled through the bandages. The blood dried.
When the nurse had to change the bandage, the wound was ripped raw, returned to the moment when they had harvested the skin. Except then I was unconscious.
I didn’t scream. But I reached out with my right hand to my thigh, where it felt I like was being skinned alive.
But I didn’t touch it, for fear of infection. I just pawed above it, until she took my wrist and pressed my hand against the sheets and covered the skin with some worth of mesh, so it wouldn’t stick again, thenand gauze. I fell back.
My friends Jonathan and Jeff came to visit, people I had somehow met in my first days at Loyola. Jeff, I think, because he took the train in too from the west island – a stop near Dorval, much closer to the city. He was probably in a class with me.
So was Jonathan, I expect. Or maybe I met him through Jeff, because we had lockers in the same part of the basement. Jeff was lamb-headed – all tight curls – and Jonathan had dark, straight and shiny hair and shy intellect.
They brought bizarre gifts. An aerosol shampoo, so I could wash my hair during my six-day hospital stay – they did gouge out a good chunk of my leg, including some missing, aching muscle.
And a tattered paperback edition of Profiles in Courage, a book at least officially written in 1955 by John F. Kennedy, about eight U.S. senators who did brave things.
Jonathan was an ironist before i really got the concept.
I made it out of hospital. Probably, I spent a few days at home – I don’t remember. My room was upstairs, at the back on the right. I shared a half bathroom with Mark, my brother, then 15. Doors from each of our rooms opened into the bathroom.

And then, a few years later, I grabbed the The Final Diagnosis by Arthur Hailey out of the Beaconsfield library. And one night, before I went to sleep, I read about a tired pathologist who misread a tissue sample. Benign, he said.
But it was melanoma, Hailey wrote. The patient would die.
It was a throwaway line in the novel. But I was freaked. I could have died.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Police story

Constable Cal Calrson had been third tallest in his 42-member RCMP cadet class. He was the 38th smartest, but he didn’t know that and wouldn’t have cared. After three years on the job he had three commendations in his jacket, no reprimands, a wife and a daughter. He exercised enough that he had Amanda take in the waists of his shirts, special ordered to house his shoulders and chest. His favorite expression was “let’s go get ‘em.”
Earl Shurler had been the shortest boy in his Grade 9 class, his last full year at school. He was a painter, but jobs hadn’t worked too well, especially since he lost his licence after the Mounties found him asleep in his car at a red light. He didn’t have a wife, or at least didn’t know where she’d gone when she walked out of the trailer eight months ago. Her note, written in lipstick on the front door, just said Fuck You, Asshole. All his clothes were too big; he liked them that way. His favorite expression was “fuck it.”
Shurler and Carley met for the first time in the parking lot of the Tall Pines Mall.
Earl had been drinking rye, coke on the side, in the Ranchers’ Steak House lounge, sitting at the bar since he left the job at 4:30. He’d was quiet, watching hockey highlights, looking around, tapping the heel of his hand on the bar, trying a joke on the waitress. She seemed to warm to him, especially when he tipped well when she got him some cigarettes.
He liked sitting at a bar, liked the dark. He was a bit worried at first in case anyone saw he had to reach with his toes to touch the brass rail , but after five drinks he felt warm and relaxed, liked the look of himself in the mirror, sandy hair and moustache, face divided by the bottles behind the bar. In the dark, the bloodshot eyes looked fine, the scar furrowed from one corner of his mouth across his chin almost vanished, the paint-spattered pants were hidden. He raised his glass, toasted himself, smiled at the bartender, looked for the waitress in the mirror.
As he toasted, dipped his head, they laughed. He turned red, without looking, because he heard the waitress laughing, using the same laugh she’d used when he told her the joke about the roughneck and the coyote. He turned slowly, gripping the bar with one hand, heel resting on the rung of the bar stool.
She was with two guys in dark jackets and bright ties, ha ir slicked back, each with a cell phone on the table, laughing as she brought them beers. They weren’t looking at him, but he stared until the nearer one looked up, and then stood quickly.
“What’s so God damn funny? What exactly is so funny.”
He took a step toward them, cowboy boots creaking, grabbing at the bar to steady himself, his other hand shaking just a little until he stuffed it in his pocket.

One suit started to rise, just reached out to the table from the low chair, then looked at Shurler’s red face and bright eyes and sat back, picked up the cell phone. The waitress looked at the bartender, leaning forward behind Shurler, then moved quickly to him, tight steps in a small black skirt, links arms, half pulls him back to his seat, scratches his neck just a little with her nails when he turns quickly back to the men, but she talks low and fast, promises a drink, tells him it’s all fine, sits him down.
T he suits sit still. Shurler gets his free drink, downs it quickly, pays, glares at the suits, leaves.
But the edgy bartender had expected a fight and had already pushed the speed dial for the police. And Constable Carlson is already in the parking lot, having just had a coffee at JJ’s Restaurant at the other end of the mall. Shurler moves through the dusk, smells the wind from the fields, cool after the smoke in the bar, enters his truck, starts it. But Carlson has seen him walking too fast and too careful and strides quickly over. Motions for Shurler to open his window, slowly moving his big hand down.
Earl does. Watery eyes, smell of rye. Bad smile, teeth bared, face already flushing, angry.
The waitress, she probably knew the cop was coming, probably held him up, the suits laughing with her now. Now this cop, phony smile, laughing like them, trying to take his truck.
“Can I see your licence please sir.”
“Why, what have I done?”
“Could I just see your licence please.”
“I haven’t done nothing, I’m just going home.”
“Step out of the car please. Out of the car.” Carlson is leaning in the open window, a little too close, his face like a mask.
Shurler looks up, tries to think of anything to say, a plea that would work, a threat, but nothing comes. He reaches for the door handle to get out, let the fucking cop win, nothing he can do anyway, no licence to show even.
Then in the next row, a woman loading groceries into her car sees her three-year-old trying to eat a stalk of rhubarb she’d bought, his chubby face screwing up in disgust, and she laughs lightly. It carries across the parking lot on the wind. Shurler hears the laugh and freezes, sure it’s the waitress, won’t look but can imagine her standing with the suits, waiting for him to be pressed against the truck, waiting to see the big Mountie over him.

He hears the laugh, like a nail in his spine, and instead of opening the door he shifts into gear, presses the accelerator, tentative. The truck is old, rusted, the engine fai ling. It’s slow, but begins to roll.
Carlson is 27.
“Stop the fucking car. Stop now. You’re making this worse.”
Shurler looks straight ahead, dignified as a chauffeur.
First Carlson walks, then runs alongside, trying to reach the ignition keys, then he clubs Shurler once in the cheek, bringing tears to his eyes, then the car is going too fast, and he lifts his feet, reaches for the steering wheel, for Shurler’s shoulder, scratches at his eyes. Then it’s all he can do to hold on, his left hand stretched down, scrabbling with stretched fingers, until he grabs the recessed door handle, his right arm stretched across the seatback, his chest pressed against the door, the handle digging in to his ribs, his feet now up, now dragging on the pavement.
Forty yards, still slow enough to let go, but Carlson feels he has a grip, doesn’t even yell, just says, reasonably, “ Stop the car, now.”
Shurler doesn’t. He leans to his right, farther away, steers with one hand, doesn’t touch Carlson. He can barely see over the dash, he’s stretched so far from the window. He’s humming now, almost grunts, some forgotten tune, a child’s song.
He turns his head, steals a look, sees the Mountie’s arms stretched like a swimmer, his eyes wide, still talking like he’s in control.
The truck is going faster, headlights shredding streaks across the asphalt, parking lot almost empty so Shurler doesn’t have to worry about hitting anyone.
And then, it seems too late to let go, and Carlson is scared for the first time, his stomach tightening when he almost slips and the pavement rips off his right boot, almost pulling him from the window. He screams, “Stop the car.”
Shurler is already scared, not yet sober, knows he can’t stop now, can’t believe the cop is tormenting him, hanging on, squeezing into his world His face is wet, warm, either tears or the spray from the Mountie yelling at him. He can’t think of anything to do but drive, hope the pavement noises rising through the window will drown out his thoughts. The air from the open window is chilling him.

His lights flash back at him, the chrome bars of a shopping cart ahead, and he swerves around it, the old truck slewing on worn shocks, just as Carley’s fingers slip from the inside door handle. He catches the spoke of the steering wheel, locks around it, sounding the horn and wrenching the car left. The left front wheel hits a ring of rocks surrounding a small island of grass and trees in the parking lot, three dark scraggy pines that will be dead by the next year, poisoned by the oil and gas runoff. The tire, old and bald, compresses, the rim bounces off the rock and the car rises three inches from the ground as Carley’s hand slips from the wheel, then catches the side mirror, then slips again. His body goes backwards and his right hand slides from the seat back, all leverage gone. He slides down the truck, his feet hit the ground and bounce up over his head. He flies, almost slowly, upside down, until he lands headfirst, bounces off his right shoulder, lands again on his back, sliding to a stop, ragged body dead on the parking lot, eyes open looking at the stars, blood from his lef t ear, one shoe gone, uniform ripped at the right shoulder and hip.
Shurler straightens up, slows, looks back in the mirror but can’t see anything, He leaves the lot, turns right, drives carefully, singing louder now but still no words.
He feels the back of his neck, a warm line where Carlson’s fingernails had traced across his skin, a lover’s scratch.
What to do. His hand shakes when he takes it from the wheel, he drifts into the left lane, then corrects. He breathes, stares until his eyes water, breathes, trying to think, hoping this is a dream, wondering whether to go back to the parking lot to see if the cop is there, back to the lounge to see if he can start this all again. Breathe. Fucking cop.
No thinking. He pulls into the Esso, parks beside a rusted Chev half-ton, sits for a minute, lights a cigarette, sweating and freezing at the same time. He turns off the truc k, hears the clunk of the key, the engine running on, faltering, cylinders firing on their own, out of time.
Into the coffee bar, after eight, three truckers at a booth, a woman with brown straw hair in tight conversation with a skinny man with a cowboy hat sitting on the table beside him, blurry prison tattoos on his arms.
Shurler takes a seat at the counter, legs trying to stay in contact with the floor. He orders a coffee, double, double, feels the waitress’ eyes on his grey, sweating face, fells his brown t-shirt soaked through. He picks up the coffee, but he shakes and it spills, leans down to sip, lights a cigarette. He sees the waitress through the heat waves from the flame, watching him, waves for her. She moves slowly, swimming through the fluorescent light haze, watching his eyes carefully. Earl asks for her pen, writes his name slowly in the matchbook cover, shaky back-slanted printing.
“Call the Mounties,” he says. “Tell them I’m here.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

When we don't say goodbye

“Are you happy?”
He watches the television, changes the channel, turns his head to look at her, changes the channel again.
“It’s a hard time to know that,” he says.
“Maybe. But I’m not. I don’t think I can keep doing this.”
He runs through more channels.
“It’s not good to be unhappy,” he says, looking at the television, .
“So what are we going to do?” She’s on the edge of the green chair, leaning forward, her hands together, the ends of her fingers growing pinker.
He changes channels again, once, twice, three times. He looks towards her, not sitting up.
“I don’t know. Wait. See if things get better. I’m not sure.”
She can hardly hear him over the laughtrack.
“I can’t wait much more.” She keeps looking at him. She stares so hard her eyes water; she remembers staring at her old bedroom closet door without blinking to keep the creature inside.
He looks at the television. His skin changes, green, blue, pink, as images on the screen light the room. His age changes with the colours. He changes channels again, stops on the real estate channel, photos of expensive houses, descriptions of modern kitchens and multiple bedrooms.
They both wait.
“I don’t know,” he says.
He holds his breath, afraid of what a sound would say. She breathes, smells damp, stale air, windows too small and too high. In the winter the room never gets warm.
He puts his hands behind his head, elbows raised, so his face is blocked by his arm. He stares harder at the television, but can’t make himself change the channel, so he watches houses for sale roll by, one every 30 seconds or so.
“If you don’t start caring more, I’m going to have to start caring less.” She speaks quietly, threat and pleading all in one sentence. She pulls the sweater a little tighter around her shoulders, brushes her red hair back. Her fingernails are chewed short.
He lowers his elbow to look at her and knows she has already started caring less.
“I’ll try harder,” he says, and changes the channel again. He keeps changing channels, looks at her again, then raises his elbows and watches the colours on the screen.
She waits, then stands and leaves. He hears her feet down the hall, up the stairs, into the bedroom. He changes channels, turns up the TV.
“I’m going to the gym.” she tells him 20 minutes later. She has on black leggings, sweat shirt, her hair tied back with a scrap of black ribbon.
“Work hard,” he says.
He hears the car leave and walks down to their room. He sees the sweater, pants, underwear she was wearing, thrown in a pile in the corner of the room near the door. He goes and lies on the floor, his head on the clothes, the sweater scratching his cheek. He takes a deep breath, inhales her smell from the clothes. He knows it’s the last time her clothes will smell that way.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A note, a hole, betrayal

I’ve always wondered about the note. I can still see the white paper, folded four times to fit into my father’s shirt pocket. I can see the creases, imagine the roughness of the fibres at the folds. I could see it resting on my parents’ dresser, one corner sticking up, beside cufflinks and Kleenex and powder, reflected in the mirror behind it.
The note wasn’t addressed to me, but I wondered. Then it vanished.
Everything was vanishing.
My brother had already vanished.The police came after midnight, two of them to carry the news, offering official sympathy in awkward French-accented English, one needing a shave, crumbs still nesting on his dark blue jacket front.
I woke to my father’s hesitant knock on the bedroom door. The light from the hall was behind him; his face was hidden in darkness. He was calm, his voice even, his hair slightly mussed.
I drove him to the hospital, along roads almost deserted, glad when cars came towards us and I could hold my eyes half shut against the headlights. I found myself humming, softly, and caught myself. In emergency the smell of soap and machinery and fear touched the back of my throat, and I coughed. A woman holding a child frowned at me. My father gave his name. The nurse behind the desk, black circles under her eyes, something chalky in the corner of her mouth, offered a look of sympathy, but with it a question.
My father went through swinging doors. I waited, listening to the hum of the fluorescent lights, and the moans of a man from somewhere down the hall. I felt cold, and realized I had no shirt on under my jacket. We went home.
The vanishing kept happening. I drove again, the next morning, to the Palais de Justice, and the trip vanished as I made it. I waited in the car, illegally parked, while my father went in and did what the law required.
The sun hurt, splintering off the dusty, greasy windows of a restaurant across the street. Looking up, I tried to see where three men had escaped from the jail on the top floors, climbing down an improbable string of prison bedsheets. The radio told me about traffic on the bridges. I closed my eyes, turned off the radio, and wondered what the note said.
More vanishing. My parents vanish, to make arrangements, then again, alone for a service. I drive Jenn to school while they are gone.
There’s a grave somewhere. There’s a small newspaper story, which someone rips out - I don’t know who, because it’s there, then it’s not there, just the space with other stories around. Lay the page flat, and the type behind shows through the hole, and it disappears.
We sit and watch TV four days later, and the air is brittle, so we breathe carefully, and speak rarely, anxious to avoid a jagged breath. The house seems to have dried, so when I go to get a drink I walk carefully on the dark brown carpet, fearful the floorboards and joists underneath will shriek if steps are too hard, or too fast. There is something wrong with the drink, a dry, metallic taste.
The last thing to vanish is the empty space and the silence.
At first, I walk around the empty space. It claims a whole bedroom, a space at the table. We walk carefully. My father is almost pulled in once - I can see him stumble as he nears the space, but he catches himself and is out the door.
We fill the space. A chair goes missing. I walk closer to the space, returning to straight lines.
The silence takes longer to vanish.It fills the room even when radios are playing, and television is laughing.
But we wait it out, then we push back, talking about errands and neighbours and the weather until the silence has vanished too. We pepper the silence with questions.
“Did you have a good day?” “Have you done your homework?”
“Do you think it will rain?” “What do you want in your lunch?”
“Do you need anything at the store?”
And with practical talk we drown out the questions in our heads. No space; no silence; no note.
Except the note hasn’t really vanished. It’s gone, I know. But at least one night a week, I have a dream where I can see it has not disappeared, it’s stuck to my dark cork bulletin board. It is, beside a quote from Thomas Hardy, about the coming universal urge not live.
But I never get up to see the note. I know there will be another dream.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The mayor of Fun Royale

Colin saw the boy’s fingers slip, and thought I knew this would happen. It was a small Nissan van, five flimsy rows of seats. The boy looked about 12, deep black skin and one eye that stared off to the side. He hung out the open sliding door of the van, hammering on the roof to tell the driver to stop to let someone off, arguing and pushing to find a way to get two dozen passengers into the tiny space, collecting the fares.
Colin’s knee hurt, and one foot had fallen asleep, his ankle pressed against the boney shin of the man with the shovel. He had watched the boy’s hands, one reaching in pressed flat against the van’s ceiling, the other with a thick pile of bills wrapped through his fingers. Colin’s shoulders were pulled tight, giving room to an older Dominican woman, being the polite Canadian. Then he saw the boy’s right hand slide a little against the light brown ceiling, and he was gone, waving once with the hand with the bills. Colin and Marie were facing each other, and Colin saw the boy out the back, bouncing sideways on the road, ungraceful cartwheels, a sandal flying high in the air.
The passengers shouted, the driver stopped and backed up, the gears whining, and they all jumped out.
Three men on a moped had stopped, and helped the boy to sit up. He was bleeding, from his forehead and his knees and the back of his left hand, and he held his back. His eyes were cloudy, rolled high in his head, and he shivered. He still held the bills, but they were covered in blood, several torn. Colin watched, as Marie turned and stared across the alaming green sugar cane fields to the sea, blue and grey and stretching on and on. The sun was already low in the sky behind them, and the fields were mixed dark shadows and lurid highlights. He hair was reddish in the sun, and her face, burned, was turned darker. He looked up from the boy, and saw her, and for a second didn’t know who she was.
A taxi driver stopped to join the crowd. They paid him 150 pesos for a ride back to the resort.
They ate too much in Lin Tran’s, the Chinese restaurant that was part of the resort, with two couples from Calgary and a large bullet-headed young British man and the sunburned, toothy woman who had married him on the beach the day before, all of them drinking rum punch with the egg foo young and curried pork fried rice and sweet and sour something.
“How the hell could he fall?” Jeff was a stockbroker in Calgary, polite and curious and neat. “He must have done the drive a thousand times.”
Marie had told them the story, describing the over-crowded bus, the bruises on the boy’s forehead and the blood. “You didn’t get any blood on you, did you?” That from Cal, who struggled to focus on them. “I mean, you know, AIDS and all.”
Marie took a large drink of the pinkish rum drink, clean after the food. She ignored Cal, considered Jeff’s question, smelling the greasy food and the light scent of some sort of mosquito repellent the British woman. She pushed a piece of slippery pepper around the plate with chopsticks, put them down, and looked at her husband.
“Actually.” And she took another drink. “Actually I may have nudged him, a little.”
The British woman - Cecily, her name was - laughed, a sharp, high shriek, so Colin did too, then before anyone could speak he asked if anyone had signed up for scuba lessons and the talk moved away from the boy.
In bed, he felt the room move just a little from the rum, lay looking at the ceiling fan as Marie switched around the channels, watching a game show in Spanish.
“What makes you think you pushed the boy out of the van.”
“I didn’t say that.” She looked at Colin, but he was staring at the fan, steadying himself with the round blur of the blades. “I said I may have nudged him.”
Colin had brought a large glass of rum up from the bar, now reached for it and took a drink, felt the rough warmth on the back of his tongue.
“What makes you think that?”
“It doesn’t matter, does it? I don’t even know, really. It was something to say.”
“But why would you say that, if it wasn’t true?”
She got up from the bed and pulled the drapes open about a foot, looked out at the palm trees and the road and the lights of the hotel rooms in the next building. He could only see her back, and her head was resting on the window glass so he could hardly hear her.
“It doesn’t really matter, does it?”
The next day all eight of them met at the beach. Cal was bulky in a large orange T-shirt that said Galvin Klein, and bargained angrily with the skinny vendors selling carvings and suntan oil,. They all drank from the beach bar and ate hot dogs and watched a Dominican dog, thin brown hair with a sore on a back leg, limp slowly from group to group. Cal threw sand at the dog, who looked at him and then lay down about 15 feet away, in the shade of a small palm tree.
By 2 they were all a little drunk, except for the large British newlywed and Cal, who were a lot drunk and turning red as they lay on the beach chairs with their eyes closed, plastic glasses scattered around them like washed up jellyfish.
Colin lay on his stomach, and turned his head toward Marie. The sun actually touched his back. His eyes were almost closed; he could see her silhouette, against the sun, her neck stretched out as she lay on her back, one hand over her head.
“You didn’t push him,” he said.
Marie lay still, didn’t open her eyes. She may have been asleep.
“I stretched just a little,” Colin whispered to the sun, “tried to find space for my foot so my leg would stop hurting, and he stepped on my shoe and fell.”
He waited, but she didn’t speak.
“I’m going for a swim,” Colin said, and he got up so quickly wobbled a little from the heat, but was down six steps over the hot sand and into the water before anyone could come along. He liked the coolness, the way the waves pushed him around, and he swam steadily without looking back until he was past the sailboats moored offshore, out to where waves were breaking over the reef. He felt the water moving around him as if it were deep. Ahead the reef came near the surface, and waves broke crazily, sideways and backwards, water sucked in to fill the void over the coral. He swam there, slowly, buoyant in the salt water, waited for the water to flow over the reef and tried to swim across, made it halfway before the wave was past and he was rolling across the dark, dead coral, trying to use his hands to keep his body from touching it, bouncing off palms and shoulder and hip and knees as the wave rolled sideways over the coral, then pushed him back into deep water. His skin stung from the salt in the scrapes, and when he held his hand out of the water thin, watery lines of blood ran down his wrists.
He floated on his back in the water, and waitied for the next wave to break on the reef.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A bruise

He had to lean through the branches of the bush to kiss her goodbye. She was tight against the house, in the corner formed where the rust red clapboards came together, watching the swirl of children and men and women on the dirt-patched lawn from the shadows.
They’d met in the town, and he almost hadn’t recognized her after so many years. The faded red dress, stains like bruises, the grey, thin hair rising in beauty parlor curls. But there was something about the way she stood that caught him, her arms crossed tightly, shoulders up a little, wrinkling the brown skin at the base of her neck. He realized who when it was too late. She came over, asked where he’d been, admired the son, touched the daughter’s hair until she shyed away, bought them candies and insisted they come see her.
“You grandmother,” he’d told them in the car, bumping along the gravel road following her as it grew dark. “She wants us to visit.”
The house was strange. He remembered it, the dark, faded wood, the leaning porch, windows like dark eyes, patchy yard, overgrown roses, swing set. But he could never remember being inside - just the outside.
She was waiting, on the step, paper bag in each hand, pushing at the unlocked door. Small dark rooms illuminated only by the fading light coming in from the windows, crowded with furniture and layers of things - clothes, pictures in small frames, china, the odd half-empty glass.
Everywhere things, and he thought he could hear his father breathing heavily - up the stairs, in the next room - but couldn't be sure, thought he could even smell something of him in the air, but it may have been the dust.
She showed him photos, clothes, school papers, china, a chest with clippings, offered tea, moved too quickly, banged her hand sharply on the table. But she hardly noticed, although he could see a small white spot where the blood was driven from her skin. She asked questions, did he want tea, a drink, were the children all right outside, did he remember this picture, and he answered, yeses and nos and maybes until he felt out of breath, like the air in the house had long since been used up. He looked at a last crowded table, a last picture of people he didn t recognize in dark coats beside a big black Ford, and said he had to go.
And she followed him out, into the twilight, then slid along the wall, so he had to lean through the branches, the skin on his hand lightly torn, scratched flesh and few dots of blood, and he brushed his cheek against hers, felt the dry skin.
He and the children met his wife again in a park not far from the house, two huge, overhanging trees soaking up the light, smaller tress and brush crowding around the chearing, battered slides and swings and teeter totters and a round-about all scattered around the dirt and grass, looking tossed like forgotten toys.
The children played, quieter than usual, dragging their feet in the dirt as they twirled on the equipment, running, stopping, visible then invisible in the early night. He watched them dance with danger, smelled the cool of the evening moving in, shivered just a little, saw them swing too high, jump from the top of the slide to land on the gravel and dirt, spin too fast, his daughter's hair flying out as she hung straight out from the little merry-go-round, head dancing just above the dirt and glass and rocks, pink fingers locked around the chipped railing, no sound from her as she went faster and faster.
He sat off to the side, watching the children, telling her of the house and the things he'd seen.
Seeing only the flashes of the children's skin in the near-dark now, seeing only her eyes through the night, and then only when she looked towards him, which wasn't often.
Then he saw movement. A figure, on the path, moving towards the children, then past, crossing toward them.
"Your father, he's dead."
"It just happened now. It seemed very strange, and we all thought it was just a little bruise, but he's dead."
A woman brought the news, not one he recognized, a friend of his mother's probably, a little younger, but with the same kind of clothes - plain, colors faded to grey, though dark this time, hands held in front of her wrapped in some kind of sweater.
"Just a small bruise, almost a smudge, a thin blue line, just here," and she pointed to the soft skin just above the cheekbone and under the eye, close to the eye and the brain. "We thought he was just lying down, then we saw he was too still."
"It was a swing, just came up and touched him ever so lightly, and laid down the bruise, and killed him. No one was on it - it was just a swing."
He thought about the house and the small yard, could see his father lying in it, jeans too large, on his back, black leather shoes still shiny, his face still except for the thin blue bruise, less than two inches long.
The children still playing, now the boy pushing the girl higher and higher in the swing, his hands flashing, her hair stretched out in the sky, dancing with the swing as it swooped up and down in the night.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Treble hooks and small boats

The boat was too damn small anyway.

It floated dangerously, his father’s weight making the stern sit low in the water, the two square ends and rough white plywood making it look like an over-sized toy. They pushed off from the dock, rocking away from the mosquitoes already appearing as the sun settled lower. Daniel sat facing backwards, too little room to face his father, looking at the sun flashing off the window of the rented cottage, so you couldn’t see in at all. His father rowed, and he could hear the creak of the oarlocks, metal on metal, the awkward splashes when an oar caught the water.

The lake was small - about 300 yards across, almost a deep pond, and they hadn’t caught any fish in the first four nights of their vacation.

They’d missed one night, when his father went back to the city after a phone call. He’d stayed in after dinner then, watched his sister play hair stylist, twisting and pulling their mother’s brown hair, her face as blank as the lake’s surface.

“Are you having fun, even if you’re not smiling,” his sister had asked her, and she had nodded but then left the room for a while, and he had read to his sister.

They always went to a different cottage, swam and got sunburn and tried to catch fish, and his father got tan and laughed. But this year they’d looked too late, and the cottage, the boat, the lake were all too small, and the dog had come out of the water with a leech, fat and black-red, on its back leg. His father had touched it with the end of a cigarete while the boy held the dog, and it dropped off into the sand, but after that they all had to check for leeches. The boy didn’t fear swimming, but he hate the moment when he had to look for something bad.

They stopped rowing in the centre of the lake.

“Right, let’s catch some breakfast,” his father said. “This looks like a fishy spot.”

“You think they all look like fishy spots.”

“No, this feels special. And we missed last night, so they’re in a biting mood tonight.”

“Why did you have to go back?” He kept his voice even, and didn’t look around, heard his father opening the tackle box, felt the boat shift as he leaned forward.

“What do you think, calm enough for a surface lure?”

He looked around, over his bare shoulder, and saw his father, hair a little too long, skin red.

“Sure,” he said. “How about I try the jitterbug.”

It was a chunk of plastic, red and white, with a big metal plate in front to make it bob and gurgle across the top of the water, trailing a treble hook.

His father tied on the lure, a practised knot that looked much easier to tie than it was, then leaned his head and with sharp teeth bit through the excess nylon line.

“Why did you have to go back.”

“Just work, something I couldn’t avoid. That will probably be it for now though.”

He handed the rod, the dark grey reel, and looked away. The boy saw how calm the water was, and deep, and looked at the cottage just up from the lake, where his mother and sister sat and played hairdresser or read about little children and country lanes.

He held the rod in his right hand, grabbed it with his left for support, then moved it backwards, stopping the motion quickly so it would bend and generate more speed as it snapped forward, the lure like a pendulum.

But he heard a little gasp, and didn’t pull forward, just turned around, holding the rod loosely. Two of the hook points were sunk into his father’s cheek, just above his mouth, a single drop of blood looking almost jaunty beside the bright lure. His father was smiling, he quessed to be reassuring, but instead he looked like he welcomed the pain.

He said sorry, watched his father stand before the mirror, trying to cut his skin with a razor blade so he could pull the barbed hooks out. But he couldn’t.

He just stood fo ra long time with the blade pressed against his skin, stretching it, but that’s all.

It took an hour to drive to the hospital, and his sister fell asleep in the car before they got back to the cottage.