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Dante's Indiana

Riding through the valley, I looked up and lost my way.

From the ground, my bike beside me, I caught my breath and bent my legs. Nothing cracked or snapped or stung. I pushed up, on my elbows. It was midday in Toronto. Late November. A Thursday.

People pedaled and jogged past. Families fanned out along the path with food bags and strollers and toddlers leashed at the wrist. A few people waved, to make sure that I was okay. I waved back. Loose dogs approached, curious, their tails whipping around. Their owners called out treats and punishments and they turned away from me. I slipped back down.

I was alone in the city.

I blinked a few times. Beyond the penciled high branches, the heavens looked like the greywhite of rainwater in an empty swimming pool.

I was alone in the city.

The demon was still there. It was beside me. The creature squatted on a plinth wedged between the bike path and the murky river. It had bat wings and a dog face. The Thursday before, it hadn’t been here; I was certain of that at least and had stared at it for far too long. Mid-pedal past. My front wheel went off the path into a slurry of pea-gravel. Small stones dug into my skin but pushing into the earth made them go away. The ground was damp and forgiving.

I looked at the gargoyle again. The battered creature must have been dumped out of some lately condo’d church. Smashed up bramble and bush ended near its base, rutted lines of dried out mud that led across the path and up to the main road. Tire tracks. Someone had driven it down from the city proper and unloaded it, right side up, and left.

A statement? A warning? A joke?

Had I taken a wrong turn, higher up the path?

If they were here with me, we wouldn’t lay down and blink and stare. We’d climb and call out and conquer.

Molly left in July, with the children. To stay with her family for the summer. She took their winter clothes.


“Leave you here?”

The driver dropped me in front of the glass-boxed front of my old Catholic college. It was now a condominium and assisted-living complex called The New U.

I walked through the airy vestibule that had been built in front of the chipped-brick building. The old hardscape had been torn up and replaced by paving tiles; pitted and silver-grey, they gave off a sheen like old trophies and tea services and baby cups, spoons, shoes in which first steps were taken, decades ago.

“Prin, has the condo board changed the rules and nobody told the guy who has to enforce them? Am I really going to let you go up the elevator with that bike, like that?” said Marcus.

I went over to his desk. The monitors and phones and cardiac-arrest kits were concealed by slatted lengths of amber wood — warm like honey and candlelight, like honey in candlelight. The desk softened the rest of the building’s otherwise cold bright bare beginning.

Marcus was a retired soldier. He lined the top of his desk with potted cactuses, a tribute to his late wife, and was beloved by the building’s residents for settling daily disputes about party-room bookings and guest-parking.

“Where am I supposed to go then?” I said.

Others were watching and listening. They were always in the lobby, fixed in their places like the unsecured umbrella stands. They carried tablets and e-readers, in case you asked any direct questions.

Marcus tapped and checked a screen. He checked his watch.

“Go to Underground 2. You might hop in the tub with your bike. You have about ten minutes before they start coming back from their dog walks. I’ll text you the code. Hurry up so you’re not ambushed.”


I was too late.

“So, what do you got there? Poodle-Harley mix?”

The other dog-walkers laughed at the old man’s joke. I waited.

When I eventually left the dog-washing room, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one waiting. The building’s elevators, programmed to reach each resident’s floor via face-recognition software, weren’t working. At every face, it flashed The Terraces.

This had to be an error message.

They all looked to me. I was the youngest resident in the building. I knew “computer,” and I had the code for the utility elevator, so I offered to bring everyone back to the lobby. Certain dogs didn’t get along. Multiple trips were necessary. I had to make each one. No one believed the code would work for anyone else. No one would chance a trip to The Terraces, the condominium’s medical wing.

Thank you’s were offered.

Standing in the lobby, I looked through the condo’s glass facade. Traffic and the faces of people in traffic; behind them, above them, more condominiums. The sky was endlessly the same. As if grey clouds had worsted the heavens.

“Overcast until evening, then cooler. The same’s in the forecast tomorrow,” said a voice from the unsecured umbrella stand.

I had to leave the lobby.

Four o’clock was too early for dinner.

For the microwave.

For pepperoncini or hot mustard on the reheated joint.

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Bird Shadows

Experts have been puzzled by displays of irrational, unprovoked aggression by Trippers toward their mates and can only conclude, after a great deal of study, that the purpose of this behaviour is to keep the mate submissive and uncertain of its own ability. Often, after prolonged periods of this irrational behaviour, the Tripper's mate will be unable to function normally.


After showering, Warren returned to the bedroom to dress. He reached into the closet to deposit the underwear he had slept in and noticed the little pile next to the empty hamper. "You missed some," he grunted over his shoulder to Helen.

"Oh?" Helen, still lying in bed, glanced lazily at the pile of underwear and said, unconcernedly, "Well, put them in the hamper and I'll get them next time."

Warren turned, still buttoning his shirt, and gave her a dark look. He tucked in his shirttails, zipped his fly in one irate thrust, and buckled his belt with all the violent indignation he could muster.

"You're going to be late for church."

Helen shifted in the bed so that he couldn't see her face. "I'll get up in a minute." The situation amused her. She smiled to herself under the covers. She could feel words lining themselves up like shadow dancers behind a screen. They were teasing, taunting, tempting. A poem had begun to incubate.

She sat quietly all through breakfast. Warren was fuming, but she ignored him. At his side throughout the church service, oblivious to his anger, she happily toyed with words:

It's hard for a God-fearing man who has no underwear.... The passages of the bible reading rose like smoke to the ceiling of the church; fragments broke off like ashes and floated down into Helen's poem: "...a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained to keep, to hold, not to be, was translated that he should not see to maintain, yes, to...." Helen grasped the word maintain, dropping it in place: maintain a pure and upright stand....

It's hard for a God-fearing man
who has no underwear,
to maintain a pure and upright stand
if underneath he's bare,
not to mention what can happen,
if he's gazing at God's sky
and forgets to safely tuck it in
before he zips his fly.

On the following Saturday, in the ordinary home of an ordinary God-fearing family, an extraordinary thing happened. A small pile of socks and underwear that hadn't made it into the laundry hamper went unwashed. A revolution had begun.

Alone in the house after lunch, Helen got down on her hands and knees and scrubbed the kitchen floor. The thought that she could never see herself as others do had begun as an idea and had metamorphosed into an obsession. She imagined how she would look through the lens of her video camera instead of in the bathroom mirror. Finally, Helen loaded her video camera with a blank tape and, setting it on a chair, recorded herself as she waxed the floor, wiped the counter, peeled vegetables, turned this way and that. She slid the tape into the Playpak, popped it into the VCR, and watched herself. She noticed, with a perverse fascination, that she had begun to slouch, that her hairstyle had no real style, that her jeans made her backside look about as attractive as two couch cushions. She was appalled by what she saw, and at first she credited the location for the unflattering likeness. The depressing, mundane, uninspired domesticity of the kitchen was to blame. Then she blamed the light. Too much light was coming from one direction. Every crease, every wrinkle cast a shadow. She looked old.

She rewound the tape and tried again in the living room, but what she saw made her feel worse. She couldn't determine exactly what it was. Warren's chair? The tedious familiarity of the room? She rewound the tape once again, faced the camera toward a blank wall, and pressed record, slowly erasing the shameful images of herself.

At bedtime, Warren glared into the closet. "Helen. I won't put up with this. Do you hear me?" His outrage rivalled that of an emperor discovering the infidelity of his wife. How was it that a man of God, confident in the superiority of his vision over that of his wife and in fact of all females, could stoop to such juvenile behaviour over a little pile of stinky socks?

"I wash what's in the hamper," said Helen.

Warren slammed the closet door. "I've put up with enough from you lately." He threw his watch on the bedside table, dropped heavily to the edge of the bed with his back to her, and wound the alarm clock, before snatching back the bedspread and climbing in. With one final yank of the covers, he became still.

Helen stiffened. She had to in order to prevent her body from rolling into the depression created by Warren's weight. She was sure an animal would never sleep this close to the vibration of an implied threat. They would act upon their instinct to distance themselves from danger. And so would Rube.

Within minutes, to Helen's amazement, Warren was snoring. The tears began. Her throat ached with the pressure of anger and began to swell around the unspoken words lodged there, words that began to drain from her thoughts and arrange themselves like droplets on a clothesline.

She crept from the bed, made her way quietly to the living room, and switched on the lamp beside her chair. She wrote: On the surface there were signs of resignation, but only in the darkness did I weep. You were there in the darkness. Did you hear me? Did you care or did you turn away to sleep?

Once again she carefully described all that had happened?what Warren said, how he'd said it, how he'd acted, how she'd felt. She wrote it as if it were a bad dream.


The church interior photo provided me with enough information for my first sketch of the church pews and pulpit; however, the pews were empty. I needed figures'shoulders, backs of heads. I called Gordon and enlisted him as a model, promising a meal in return. It wouldn't be necessary for us to return to the church. I placed kitchen chairs in my living room, spacing them to mimic the distance between church pews. With my camera on a tripod in a stationary position, I photographed Gordon in one chair after another in an effort to gauge diminishing sizes. When we were finished I popped the cork on a bottle of bordeaux as Gordonhung his jacket on a hook. I tossed a padded envelope on the table in front of him and proceeded to pour the wine.

"What's this?"

"What do you think? It has slides in it. My address is written in my handwriting. Any ideas?"

"Sounds like a rejection." Gordon lowered himself into a chair at the table, reached for his glass, and took a sip.

"Read it."

He scanned the gallery name on the envelope before unfolding the letter and frowning.

Dear Ms. Peckham,
Thanks for proposing your work to the gallery. We considered it together with many other dossiers at a recent exhibition planning meeting. The gallery's program for the next eighteen months will focus on the development of critical and resistant strategies in visual production, particularly in relation to feminist concerns and identity politics. Your work makes a complex statement, however we decided not to offer you an exhibition. We feel that your work might be more consistent with curatorial priorities at anoth?

"What the hell does that mean?" Gordon tossed the letter on the table.

"Your guess is as good as mine."

"'...the development in critical and resistant strategies in visual production....' Don't you think your strategies were critical? Weren't they resistant enough? Ohh, they didn't relate enough to feminist concerns.... But they do, don't they? I mean, many of the issues women have around religion are related to feminist concerns. Identity politics. I may be stupid, but what's that? They say your work makes a complex statement! This letter makes a complex statement! Well, the long and the short of it is, dear, you've been kicked to the curb."


He raised his glass. "I can think of no better reason for a drink." In a gentler tone, he asked, "So do you ever wonder why you bother?"

"I wonder all the time." I sat at the opposite side of the table.

"It can't be for the money," he said, gesturing with his wine.

"You've got that right."

"It can't be for the prestige."

"Nope. A hoodlum gets more respect."

"Well, you must be crazy then," he declared with a shrug.

"What else can I do?"

"You wouldn't make much of a nurse."

"How about a demolition expert? I'm in the mood."

"Yeah, I like it. Go right to the opposite side." Gordon looked up at the ceiling and chewed his lip. "Destroy things instead of creating them. You'd get more money."

"I'd have more fun."

"What's the difference anyway? Destroy. Create. Destroy. Create. It's all a matter of how you look at it."

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