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Fiction Lesbian

Sodom Road Exit

by (author) Amber Dawn

Arsenal Pulp Press
Initial publish date
May 2018
Lesbian, Literary, General, Contemporary Women, Occult & Supernatural
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    Mar 2018
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    Jul 2018
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    May 2018
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It's the summer of 1990 and Crystal Beach has lost its beloved, long-running amusement park, leaving the lakeside village a virtual ghost town. It is back to this fallen community Starla Mia Martin must return to live with her overbearing mother after dropping out of university and racking up significant debt. But an economic downturn, mother-daughter drama, and Generation X disillusionment soon prove to be to be the least of Starla's troubles. A mysterious and salacious force begins to dog Starla; inexplicable sounds in the night and unimaginable sites spotted in the periphery. Soon enough, Starla must confront the unresolved traumas that haunt Crystal Beach.

Sodom Road Exit might read like a conventional paranormal thriller, except that Starla is far from a conventional protagonist. Where others might feel fear, Starla feels lust and queer desire. When others might run, Starla draws the horror nearer. And in turn, she draws a host of capricious characters toward her—all of them challenged to seek answers beyond their own temporal realities.

Sodom Road Exit, the second novel by Lambda Literary Award winner Amber Dawn, is a book that's alive with both desire and dread.


This publication meets the EPUB Accessibility requirements and it also meets the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG-AA). It is screen-reader friendly and is accessible to persons with disabilities. A Simple book with few images, which is defined with accessible structural markup. This book contains various accessibility features such as alternative text for images, table of contents, page-list, landmark, reading order and semantic structure.

About the author

Amber Dawn is a writer, filmmaker and performance artist based in Vancouver. She is the author of the novel Sub Rosa (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010), editor of the Lambda Award-nominated Fist of the Spider Woman (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2008) and co-editor of With a Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2005). Her award-winning, genderfuck docu-porn, "Girl on Girl," has been screened in eight countries and added to the gender studies curriculum at Concordia University. She has toured three times with the infamous Sex Workers` Art Show in the US. She was voted Xtra! West`s Hero of the Year in 2008. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Currently, she is the director of programming for the Vancouver Queer Film Festival.

Amber Dawn's profile page

Excerpt: Sodom Road Exit (by (author) Amber Dawn)

Prologue: Spring 1990

The first photograph of the Angel of Crystal Beach was taken by our very own local newspaperman, Howie Foster. After stealthily drinking four lukewarm Labatt Blues in the backseat of his car, while his brother laboured for hours in the May sun, Howie mounted his pricey Canon camera atop his tripod and began snapping shots. Was the erection of the Ricky Esposito Memorial Gazebo newsworthy enough to earn us the cover” Not likely, especially not during a holiday weekend, and especially considering the gazebo technically stands on a private property. We guessed the rather enormous 18 x 18 foot hexagon structure would be used for the occasional small wedding, or maybe, if we felt ambitious, we—d offer it to a book club for summer meetings, or the local seniors choir if they wanted to sing in an outdoor bandstand. To be honest, we weren—t really thinking about how the Gazebo would be used, only that it needed to be built. The reason Howie ran the Gazebo story—the reason he was there on Canada Day rather than fraternizing with other red-nosed men in a beer tent somewhere—was because he wanted to do right by his brother, Joe Foster, who was celebrating his tenth year sober. The cover photo and accompanying news article were Howie's ways of being an enthusiastic, albeit condoling, witness to his brother. The fact is everyone who showed up that day showed up in service of someone else. Tamara was there because she was worried for my well-being, and she's the type of tough love beauty who is attracted to a problem (the problem being me). My mother was also worried—she was worried she—d be excluded from a notable event in our small community. Dr. Rahn Johnson was there for my mother. Hal and Bobby, Rose and I, well, we believed we had a higher calling. We were summoned by divine purpose. Or divine purpose is one way of looking at it. I might also say I had no choice. The photo in the Fort Erie Times: front row, left to right; Rose Esposito, Barbara and Bailey Martin, Tamara Matveev, Roberta Varin: and back row; Wendel Swartz, Howard and Joey Foster, Rahn Johnson, Harvey Varin and little Lucky (just “little Lucky?) perched on top of Hal's shoulders. We were a wide-smile group; new buddies, recently consummated lovers, both blood and unconventional family. Each of us allowing a day's worth of honest work yoked us together. And in this way, the photo does not lie. The article made no mention of angels. No ghosts. No miracles. No lady of blessed whatnot. No harbingers of transformation. Nothing supernatural at all. Those of us who had seen her, were doing our best to keep her a secret. We were in awe of what we had seen, and also mortified. Somehow saying it aloud would have made it more real, too real and too soon. Therefore, the Monday July 2, 1990 the front-page headline read, “Memorial Gazebo Built with Salvaged Wood from Crystal Beach Amusement Park.? Days after the local paper ran our story, we studied the newsprint grain, the pixels. “Do you see her?” Her hourglass shape like an elegant smudge. Since the Fort Erie Times article, there have been other photos, better-quality photos in more reputable newspapers. But this clipping is the one stuck to Barbara's fridge, another is taped to Rose's hall mirror, and a third is proudly framed and hangs from a beam of our revered Ricky Esposito Memorial Gazebo. Some claim to see her right away, others denounce her as a trick of light and shadow. Either way, it's unmistakably Etta standing beside me in the photo. Our Angel of Crystal Beach, Ontario. Her filmy arm stretched forward, as if someone has just asked her to dance.

  One: Running a Balance

The anonymous woman in bed beside me adamantly shakes my shoulder. She had a name last night. She must have, as part of my hook-and-line I complimented her “pretty name” and said, “it suits you.” Unless a woman's name is Mavis, I normally compliment her on her pretty name. ?Your phone keeps ringing. Four times in a row. Maybe it's an emergency?” Not-Mavis is still naked. I, evidently, pulled a nightshirt on backward before completely passing out. I don—t have to look at my call display to know it's a 1-800 number. Debt collection agencies call early in the morning, and repeatedly. They—re not supposed to call before 9 a.m., or at least that's what other flunkies and bums tell me, but so far I—ve failed to convince the telephone goon squad to stop. ?I can—t believe you slept right through it,” she says. ?I took a sleeping pill.? ?You took a sleeping pill” Are you crazy” We drank two bottles of wine last night.” Who said you could sleep over” What's wrong with your own bed” That's how I want to respond. But it's a bad idea to aggravate a naked woman. There are only two reasons for a woman to sleep naked next to someone she just met. One—she is extremely comfortable with herself. Two—she has hastily decided that she is comfortable with you. Either way, she is not a woman I want to fight with at the crack-of-my-ass in the morning. ?May as well seize the day,” I say, slowly sitting up. I have an eyeball socket headache. “Coffee” I know a cute place on Dupont.? In the elevator I get the feeling her name could be Tabatha or Tammy or Tiffany. Tatiana” I don—t dare address her by any of these, as I—m likely wrong. Not-Mavis is wearing the perfect day-to-night dress. Was she anticipating doing the walk of shame this morning” It's leopard print, but, like, business leopard, with a mid-thigh hem with three-quarter sleeves. Her leather oxford shoes have been recently polished. I figure she's got five years on me. Or more. Might be pushing thirty. Knees are how I tell age. She's got beginner kninkles—knee wrinkles—frowning under each knee. I picture a cartoon eyes and a nose on her kneecaps. Sad-faced clowns. We reach my lobby and both put on sunglasses. Ha! She was prepared to spend the night. Who carries sunglasses in an evening bag” I take her to Gigi's Bakery because counter service will make this whole thanks-and-goodbye bit go more quickly. “Their Nutella croissants are divine. Let me buy you one,” I offer. We sit outside on wobbly bistro chairs sipping espresso. Not-Mavis breaks off a piece of her croissant and tosses it to a nearby pigeon. “I won—t bother leaving my number,” she says. ?Enjoyed yourself that much, eh?” Bitch, buy your own croissant from now on. ?No, no. I had a lot of fun.” Not-Mavis squeezes my arm. I pull away, pretending to take a last sip from my already empty cup. “Josie and Zed already warned me not to try to get a second date out of you.” ?Josie and Zed?? ?You know. Your friends who set us up.” ?I know who Josie and Zed are,” I say, quietly, hoping that if I speak quietly she—ll lower her volume too. “I—m just — surprised they said that.? ?I was looking for a discreet thing. Remember, I—m married.” This is exactly why I don—t go to breakfast diners with one-night stands. If I had to wait for a waitress to take care of the bill right now, I—d die. The extra five minutes would kill me. I—d clunk Not-Mavis over the head with her tiny espresso cup, and kill her too. And where do Josie and Zed get off” What am I, the dregs of casual sex, bottom feeder of blind dates” I swear I—m never having another threesome with those two again. I refuse to watch Not-Mavis walk away in her business leopard dress, and that's one of my favourite parts. The walking away part. Women's hips are spellbinding after they—ve been fucked. Men too, actually. Except there's often less and hip more shoulder sway with a guy's goodbye march. Weak moment, I turn to see Not-Mavis hail a cab as she reaches Spadina. I follow in her wake. How long has it been since I—ve taken a taxi” Loitering at the intersection, I count the yellow-checkered cabs drive by. The best thing to do would be to go home and sleep for a few more hours. Unplug the phone. Pull the blinds. My right arm rises. A familiar thump thump thump pulses under my jaw as a cab pulls up to the curb. “Lawrence and Bridle Path.” The cabbie harumphs. He switches on the metre. We pass jocks in University of Toronto's Varsity Blues hoodies walking towards campus in a small huddle. The football team hasn—t won a Vanier Cup since 1965. They—ve been losing longer than I—ve been alive. Put that slogan on a hoodie: “Varsity Blues: losing since before I was born.” Campus fables claim the team is cursed. I think about curses a lot. How we need something titillating to blame for all our failures. How blame itself is titillating. Blame, Latin, blasphēmāre, “to blaspheme.” Titillate, verb, Latin tītillāre, “to tickle.” Curse, noun, Latin cursus, “course,” as in the direction taken. Quod est super. I no longer study Latin. The Varsity Blues are no longer my team. The cab is hot and smells sickeningly sweet like Vanilla Armor All. Why didn—t I drink any water at the bakery” My hangover presses on my dry tongue. I crack my window. Outside of Davisville station we pass a busker with dyed green hair playing “Sweet Jane” on acoustic guitar. Not the Velvet Underground version, the Cowboy Junkies version. MuchMusic still plays that video like three times a day. My Pay-TV hasn—t got cut off, yet. Men in grey shorts jog along the shoulder of Sunnybrook Park. Further towards the hazy horizon line, a pair of horses and riders stand stationary in a field. Today is my third trip to The Bridle Path—aka Millionaires Row'since I moved to Toronto. I have a chosen a favourite house from one of the few that isn—t hidden behind hedges and high iron gates. Twenty or more of my apartment could fit inside this house. Ten of my apartment towers could sit on the property. The fa—ade is flanked by Corinthian columns. Not those budget Tuscan columns, oh no, Corinthian columns. Gilded street lamps flags the driveway, like they are saying “welcome to a world of happiness and supremacy.” Inside, I imagine a grand staircase centred around a chandelier, marble floors and Persian carpets, a two-story library and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. And maybe a taxidermy African elephant head mounted above a fireplace, or something equally ostentatious and devastating. ?You know which house you—re supposed to go to, right?” asks the cabbie. He thinks I—m a what” A strip-o-gram” A call girl? ?No, sorry. We can head back. Midtown is good.” My words come out gurgled. Wine phlegm gags the back of my throat. The cabbie pulls over. “You pay for the ride here first. Then I—ll drive you back.” His metre reads $39.50. I swallow back spit as I pass him my Visa. Silently, I will him to simply ink my card through the imprinter and have me sign. He picks up his car phone for authorization. Run, I think. Run, as he punches in my card number. Run, as he waits on hold. I tell him, “That's my good card. That one's good.” ?Declined. You wanna talk to them?” I reach for the receiver. “The cord doesn—t go as far as the back seat. Come up.” Again, I picture myself running. My imaginary superhero body bolts through a row of hedges and leaps over a wrought iron fence. In each of these yards there is likely a Doberman or a pet tiger or something I—d have to wrestle. And I can—t actually wrestle. Delicate ankles. My superhero fantasy has real corporeal limits. I—m not much of a dreamer. And I already have a juvenile record for shoplifting. I open the passenger side door and slump defeated beside the cabbie. The Visa representative on the phone politely chides me, “If you were a customer who pays your minimum on time, I could make an exception. But you—re running a balance month after month.” The cabbie shifts his gear stick from neutral to drive. I make a head gesture that I—m sure appears to him like a nod, but really it's only my neck giving up the burden of carrying my stupid head. He parks in the loading zone behind Crestwood private high school. I am relieved as he undoes his pants in the front seat. Front seat equals blowjob. Back seat equals more. Or at least that's what the boys in my hometown taught me. My ears fill with vacuum noise as if the world has just been punctured and everything is being sucked through a small hole. I am spared from hearing the sounds he makes. I expect him to be a rough ride. Isn—t that what happens when you cheat a cabbie” A head pushing and hip pumping rough ride” He only rubs his hands up and down my arms, dips his fingers under the back of my dress. Afterwards, I sit forehead to knees on the curb in front of the private school in the richest zip code in the country. When the recess bell rings and teens in navy blue cardigans and grey slacks swarm the lawn, I quickly move along. I head down York Mills Road, past the auto body shops and Mr. Subs and self-storage lots. Past Sleep Country Mattress and the Rogers Cable headquarters. Past the biggest liquor store in the entire province. Hardly anyone walks York Mills Road. It's a thoroughfare. A driving route. I am an obvious outcast legging it along as station wagon after station wagon whips by me. I reach the York Mills Station, which is where I should catch the TTC, but I—m not ready to share a small space, like a subway car, with other humans. I turn down Yonge. The Guinness Book of World Records says that Yonge Street is the longest street in the world, at 1,896 km. The Guinness Book of World Records is mistaken. The longest is the Pan-American Highway. I can fact check better then those Guinness dimwits. Though Yonge may as well be the longest since now I—ve doomed myself to walk it. I make myself stop at the Bedford Park Community Centre to use the women's washroom beside the pool. My body slips out of autopilot and back into present time and place. The tile floor is slippery. Mirrors are fogged from the perpetually running showers. Old women bathe and speak a language that sounds a lot like Italian, except I don—t understand a word. I edge my head into a metal sink and slurp back cold water from the tap. The cold metal faucet lets me grip it tightly—it doesn—t care about what I—ve done. Further down Yonge, I welcome pedestrian density and transit hubs. I am delightfully nobody in the crowd. The shopping centre at Eglinton lets me know I—ve almost reached Midtown. For several blocks the buildings turn to glass and steel and become disproportionately taller. This too is comforting—how small I am in comparison. Then, a few blocks later, I—m shouldered up to Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Cherry blossoms and magnolias are at the end of their bloom. Pink petals snow down on the headstones. Spring has been warm, too warm. I feel an eyeball headache coming on again. It isn—t until I pass Summerhill that I feel the surroundings are “mine” again. The corner grocery store that is just called FOOD is mine. Rows of red brick houses with rock-and-roll flags hung in their windows instead of curtains are mine. And finally, finally!, my building on St. Georges, always with a Vacancy, Bach, 1 Bed, 2 Bed sign posted out front. I slip my shoes off in the elevator. Swollen feet. Almost five hours have elapsed since Not-Mavis and I left my apartment. From the hallway, I can hear my phone ringing. It rings again as I hang my up my keys. A third time as I crumple into my bed. You just paid for a cab ride with a blowjob, I remind myself. What have I got left to lose” I pick up the phone. ?Bay” Bay, I got this message on my machine.” I can hear my mother's utter dismay from 150 km away. “It said you owed a lot of money.” Yes, this also is what other flunkies warned me about—creditors will track down family members, grow their phone tree of harassment. Again, there is this ubiquitous suction. A velocity so much bigger than me. Its master force pulls confessions from my cerebral cortex or whatever part of the mammal brain that holds secrets. I dropped out of school. My student loans defaulted. I owe a fuck ton of money. And I hate myself.

  Two: Sodomite

?Sodom Road exit?” Lampoonistic question. I almost answer, yes sir, before the driver comically clears his throat. His hired Lincoln's front grill is so bug blemished from countless trips between Toronto and the boondocks that clearly he knows exactly which route to take. Exiting on to Bowen or Bertie would add fifteen-odd minutes to the trip. The driver's question is for amusement's sake. Sodom Road is the joke of the Niagara Peninsula. Travel south on Queen Elizabeth Way and you can—t miss the radiating letters under bald sun, or at night, the reflective aluminum letters that rush to meet your headlights. They read “Sodom Rd. Crystal Beach,” with an arrow pointing to the expansive stretch of overgrown brush. The road's name nods to the late 1880s when Crystal Beach was a religious colony and chautauqua assembly. True story. The village was settled by Jesuits or maybe Methodists who soon found more profitable ventures than Bible Camp. The Holy Trinity was replaced by a dance hall, a vaudeville theatre and a carousel. Hailed the Coney Island of the North. Pity Sodom Road was never renamed. I might enjoy returning home via Vaudeville Road. Painted Pony Parkway. Or something nostalgia-worthy like that. Will the driver also think it clever when Sodom Road becomes Gorham Road” Gorham (like Gomorrah) Road has never earned the same heckling. It's unfair—both Sodom and Gomorrah were cities of grievous sinners, both destroyed by fire and brimstone, and so shouldn—t both share equal rights to innuendo” Lewd animal butt lust sodomy is what stuck around our pitiful noosphere. Sodom. So be it. Welcome home. I make no attempt at eye contact in the rear view mirror. I can—t be bothered with his grin. And I don—t want to invite any other jokes he may have about the backwards track of my childhood. Over the past week, friends and acquaintances spawned our gross jokes. My return to the village considered foolish funny, not ha ha funny. As if I would immediately be gifted a straw hat and oversized hammer as soon as I arrive. Torontonians believe that anywhere outside of Toronto is pantomime stage—a place where mute actors perform a dumb show. My farewell party was an LSD dropping and viewing marathon of The Prisoner. I hemmed my bachelor apartment in with back alley mattresses and borrowed blankets. Acid was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek—as in psychedelics are the type of drugs only found in 1960s television or in small-town Ontario—but droves of students around The Annex actually showed up ready to trip. A clique of Ontario Collage of Arts and Design students brought several giant white latex balloons. “Contact imminent,” they parroted. “Turn back before it's too late.” One fawn-like girl I—ve never seen before walked in circles wearing only a white bikini with the number 6 painted on both breasts and butt cheeks. Where did they come from” “Bailey fucking Martin,” they greeted me by name, “don—t leave us.” As the night wore on I recognize fewer and fewer of their faces. This panicked me at first. I itched my skin. I pulled at my hair, follicle by follicle. Fawn-girl appointed herself the bad-trip nurse and calmed me by instructing me in breathing. “In. In. In,” she cooed, then “Out. Out. Out.” Hours later I was said to be shouting, “I—m not a number, I—m a free man.? A few wrote their phone numbers and some intoxicated propositions on my bathroom wall. “Bailey fucking Martin, you can—t leave this city before sucking my cock,” one example, written in lipstick. Not one of them helped me pack and haul my stuff to the curb. In Toronto, it's every asshole for themself. No farewell kisses. Maybe adieu is only bid when you—re going somewhere big. Crystal Beach's population is 3,000 year-round residents, give or take. Once upon a time the village was famous. Or between the twenty-fourth of May and Labour Day we were famous. Known throughout Erie and Niagara Counties in New York State, as well as around Ontario's Golden Horseshoe. We were famous for the largest dance floor in North America. The most terrifying roller coaster, allegedly, in the world. Sun bathing on white sand beaches. Picnics on perfect lawns. Crystal Beach was where workers from the Lackawanna Steel Plant or Welland Wabasso Cotton Mill would take their staff retreats. People who didn—t have to live here loved this place. I could be a tour guide, except we haven—t hosted any tours for a long, long time. The grass is parched, not gaily kept like the Crystal Beach of yesterday's postcards. Crab grass and dandelion claim each yard. Oaks are topped with billowing caterpillar nests. Vinyl-sided bungalows hunker low to the flat earth. The first billboard off the highway shows a collage of fraternal group emblems: the Kinsmen, the Lions, Knights of Columbus, Order of Eagles, Odd Fellows, Masonic Hall Palmers Lodge 372, and their matriarchal counterparts: the Kinnettes, the Rebekahs, and on. Just a quick glimpse of the perfectly symmetrical maple leaf wreath logo of the Kinsman conjures the taste of hot dogs. Today, I cannot name a single fellow from the kin of beer lodge good-doers, who hosted potato sack races and Easter egg hunts. These brothers are a single oversimplified archetype in my mind. Only moustaches. Polo shirts. Fishing caps. I do remember posing for photos at their Christmas food hamper giveaway. Snap. Adorable welfare brat accepts hand out. The second billboard displays a similarly crowded arrangement of religious banners. Saint George's—where I was baptized Roman Catholic and prayed for God only knows how many Sundays—displayed on the top left of the sign. I always thought the exterior of our church looked like a flying saucer: short and round, a low conical roof topped with an otherworldly spherical crown of polished steel. It was an ongoing disappointment to enter and see the queue of wooden pews, like any other church. The stained glass was something. Or at least it was something significant to my child's sense of wonder. As a girl, I insisted on sitting next to the stained-glass window that portrayed the sixth station of the cross: Veronica wipes Jesus's face with her veil. I imagined myself as Veronica. She was there at the right moment. From out of the crowd of bystanders Veronica was chosen to receive the Holy Face, the miraculous swatch of cloth said to quench thirst, cure blindness, possibly raise the dead. One opportune moment and Veronica became legend. I—ve since learned from an Early Christianity Studies course that Veronica was not a historical figure. Why are most of the women in the bible mostly myth” Were they always fiction or did time fictionalize once living, breathing women” Years before university wrecked everything, Veronica's rose-coloured lips were truly holy. On the right kind of Sunday morning, the sunshine would send a slice of pink light through the glass window and down to the marble floor. If I reached my hand out, pink light would make my fingers glow. St. George's congregation, like the Kinsmen, has also become lump sum of Sunday-best-dressed. Besides my own mother, I can—t remember a one. Even the priest's name is consigned to oblivion. These lapses in memory mean I am returning to the village a stranger. I am returning as a failed Torontonian and a university dropout. For four years, seven months and twenty-eight days I managed to live as far away from here as I could. Only a two-hour drive, really, but another fucking world. Now I am the only passenger in the back seat of the Niagara Car Service with all my belongings audibly bouncing around in the trunk behind me. My thighs are smeared grey by the unread pages of the Globe and Mail that I—ve allowed to wilt on my lap. The early appearance of cottonwood seeds dot the humid air and make me sneeze. I am returning on the hottest day of, not only the year, but, according to 91.1 HTZ FM, the hottest spring day in the last sixty-two years. April 28, 1990. ?Air con is on the blink,” the driver says. “Boss wasn—t planning on fixing it until June, but this sure feels like June to me. Like July.” What appears to be a gnat has drowned in the sweat on the back of his neck. I stare at the pin-sized smudge, then scold myself for looking so closely at him. For looking at any of it. This is temporary, I tell myself. A blip. I will write a novel. I—ll find a sugar daddy—not a dock foreman or a plumber, but an art dealer or entertainment lawyer. I—ll become a one-hit-wonder pop star. I will set myself on fire and film it. I—ll do something. I—ll be someone. I will. A third billboard once welcomed countless tourists. “You Can—t Beat the Beach! Crystal Beach Amusement Park, since 1889.” Now there is something I remember: a sign that's no longer standing. A small mound of overturned dirt—like the grave of a beloved pet—marks where it was torn from the ground.

  Three: Painted Lady

Nine Loomis Crescent is coated in at least six layers of Lunar Eclipse—a purple paint shade my mother chose for its name. The romantic name and, more so, to set her home apart from the neighbouring cottages. The colour absolutely realized its full potential. Too brazen for the white panorama, the neighbours view the house as a painted lady. A tramp clowning around the block. The house may have well taught itself to say, “Hey, sailor.” Purple wasn—t entirely to blame. My mother—Barbara Enrica Martin—has always been too much for Crystal Beach. Way too much woman for the local hard-bitten bachelors. Luckily for her, the beach once brought in a steady flow of single American men each summer. Barbara adopted a strict cross-border dating policy long ago. On-and-off, her personal ad ran in the Buffalo News from the early “70s to the mid-?80s. She always alerted me as to when strange men might start calling again. Her instructions on message taking were precise. Repeat the man's name twice, spell it once. And do not sound like a nervous kid at a spelling bee. Speak clearly, like a grownup. Once and only once did juvenile curiosity get me, and I searched the paper for her ad. Pleasantly Plump and Entirely Experienced. SWF 5–8?” brunette. Independent, liberated, educated and sexy (double D!) Not looking for a husband, just good company. Reply if you are a kind, adventurous man under 50. Unmarried only, please. Oh, the teenage humiliation of discovering that your mother has made public her bra size. I will never un-see it. Show me anything written in Century Condensed serif and it's burned into my mind. Her suitors were often men with names that Barbara had to practice to pronounce. While she sifted through her sale-rack frippery for the perfect dress to wear, Barbara would recite the newest man's name, painstakingly, as if she could learn a new velar, an alveopalatal, a new way for her tongue to curl. “Ar-na-ud,” Barbara would say again and again to her sequined minidress. Watching this routine, I assumed that my mother was giving her dresses male nicknames. Barbara's closet soon housed a crowd of slinky polyester Ishmaels, long gauzy Jos” Luiss and black lace R—mis. In turn, these men were all inclined to exclaim all three syllables of Barbara's name. “Bar! Bar! Ra!” Some called her from the front yard. Some hollered as they pulled up in their cars. And on hot summer nights “Bar! Bar! Ra!” burst from the open windows of her room. Gentleman callers rarely lasted more than a few months. A well-practiced and picturesque weeper, I swear my mother trained her tears to weave down her cheek like the ric rac trim on her polyester lingerie. Each man earned a day's worth, maybe two, of grief, then she was on to the next. I never considered that by dating umpteen men from a different cities, another country, and even various other cultures and religions, she had spared me the of tired enactment of nuclear families or conventional small-town courtship. I was not dragged to dinner with the sad-faced divorc” down the street. At no time did I catch her flirting with my male teachers at PTA meetings. I didn—t witness her having a poorly concealed affair with the father of one of my classmates. I wasn—t asked to accept new brothers or sisters into our home. I never had to share holidays or birthdays. This is what she always told me anyway, “You—ll never have to share a birthday. You are my one and only baby.” I also never considered each brief love affair was a way to get lost. Passed from mess to morass of passionate hands, Barbara was constantly spun in unknown directions, a dizzy course that pointed away from her gaudy beach bungalow at Nine Loomis Crescent. No, children do not recognize their parent's need to escape. Instead I grew up believing what the locals believed, that we lived in a whorehouse. Coincidentally, the apartment number of my recently relinquished Toronto address was also nine. Apartment number 99. Double nine. Although few people knew I occupied number 99 because I had pried the peel-and-stick numbers from my door. And when the tenants across the hall moved out, I pried the number 98 from the vacant apartment door. When 96 and 92 moved, I did the same. To further confuse visitors, I singed the elevator buttons for floors eight through twelve with a lit cigarette. The stink of burning plastic failed to set off the fire alarm. Dumpy building. One embittered one-night-stand—who returned unannounced in the middle of the night—incited these precautions. I woke at 2:30 a.m., just after last call at the bars. It wasn—t knocking I heard, but pawing. Feeble pawing that continued for more than fifteen minutes; I watched the time pass on my digital clock. A wounded animal was on the other side of my apartment door. I refused to let it in, but after a while I crept out of bed and crouched down on my bamboo doormatt to listen to the delicate and asinine pleadings of this drunken fuck. “I don—t understand why you—re avoiding me,” and, “You can—t tell me there wasn—t a connection,” and, “Am I nothing to you then?” The volume rose with each question, until one question was repeatedly shouted: “Am I nothing?” I sat perfectly still on the other side of the door. It was like overhearing a domestic dispute in the adjoining apartment. Listening in, vigilant, trying to assess at what point to call the cops. Except this wasn—t the next apartment over, it was mine. The question “Am I nothing?” tormented me for weeks afterward. Why should I have to endorse someone else's existence” Most days, I barely know what's holding me to this earth. Do I go around demanding others to validate my worth” No. I do not. I removed the numbers so that my steady rotation of no-strings lovers couldn—t find their way back to me. There was no longer a tangible place for them to lodge their complaints. I figured if they got past the patchy security door at my building's entrance, they would never find my un-numbered apartment. Sometimes I still imagine them—raging punk girls from The Dance Cave, melodramatic theatre geeks from school, married men who would leave their business cards on my bedside table, all of them—wandering around the hallways of my massive apartment complex. All wanting to ask me the same troubling question. Standing on my mother's porch, I am demoted back to single nine. Barbara's brass number isn—t the cheap peel-and-stick type I had pried from my old apartment, at least. Barbara's nine is oversized and art-deco-like, and fixed above the door with real brass screws. The deadbolt is brass, too, and there is only one, and it's not even locked. No one outside of Toronto double bolts their doors. Songbird, a Yorkshire terrier, barks as I haul my largest suitcase inside “Songbird. Sit. Quiet,” I command. Songbird isn—t the terrier I grew up with. This is Songbird II. I don—t allow this Songbird to lick my face as I bend down to pet her. The terrier dances in figure eights around my hands, nervously eyeing me as if I—m going to smack her. Then as soon as I stand upright again, she rolls over to show her belly. “You missed your chance for a belly rub, buddy.” I step over her, kicking my flip-flops across the floor. The ceiling fan that whirls above me is new. I get earfuls about Barbara's latest home renovations in each of our telephone conversations. Now I stand agog seeing the change with my own eyes. This is not my mother's kitchen. This is the kitchen of a sane person with sane tastes. Where is the avocado-coloured oven” Where is the smiling sun-faced clock” The refrigerator magnets made of walnuts with googley eyes” I fling open a cupboard to find rows of aluminum canisters lined up and labeled: brown rice, oats, cornmeal. I open each cupboard and drawer in this imposter kitchen, run my finger along the inside of drawers to find that there is no dust, no spilled salt or crummy garlic powder. Clean. Even the empty wine bottles in the recycling bin are washed and sorted by colour. This isn—t the kind of makeover that happens overnight. How long has it been since I visited” I count months in my head as I shuffle undented, not-yet-expired canned goods around in the pantry closet. Finally, I discover something familiar: my mother's canning. “You—re so stupid,” I self-admonish as I wrestle with the lid from a can of peaches. The jar makes a rewarding hiss under my sweaty palm. Jabbing at the slippery fruit with my fingers, I slide an entire half peach past my lips, letting the syrup leak down my chin. Mouth full, I have the fortitude to tour the rest of the house. The Martin home is a one-story, winterized cottage bungalow just like every other house on the block. Standard six rooms: two bedrooms, living room, kitchen, dining, bath. Count the screened-in back porch and you—ve got seven. For a mere 1,400 square feet, I am lost. I find that the bathroom had been wiped completely white. White linoleum floor, white acrylic tub, white dressing room light bulbs around the mirror—a bathroom from a Howard Johnson hotel. In the living room, an overstuffed pastel tropical print sectional sofa ties up two walls. A glass-topped rattan coffee table dominates the floor space. The twenty-seven inch television set doesn—t have rabbit ears like our old one, but it's not quite a new model either. The room screams liquidation warehouse. Clearance tags all around. On the wall, a portrait of Barbara pregnant still hangs. Barbara standing as proud and expectant as ever in the sepia orange cast of the summer of “68. The sun haloing her long, centre-parted hair, a macram” belt slung below her pregnant belly. ?Macram?,” I exclaim. Songbird runs to my side with her ears raised. “She finally got rid of the macram?,” I tell the terrier. There's not a single plant hanger, lampshade or owl. I inhale deeply expecting the earthy stink of macram” jute—the odor of my upbringing. All I can smell is peach syrup on my chin. Then, not a minute later, the awful sentimental aroma meets me as I enter my old bedroom. Jesus fucking Christ, literally, Jesus of macram?. The wall hanging is half as tall as I am. Wooden beads for eyes. A row of seashells make a mouth. Unlike the Jesus depicted in the stained-glass windows of Saint George's Church, macram” wall hanging Jesus is completely naked. A flaccid rope of a penis dangles between his knotted legs. I doubt we had this gem when I was a kid. She acquired new macram?” Suddenly the original motion picture soundtrack from Jesus Christ Superstar rips through me. Yvonne Elliman singing, “I Don—t Know How to Love Him.” My teeth clench, as if tightening my jaw might keep me from remembering this unfortunate torch ballad. For five years, I—ve avoided John Lennon, Cat Stevens, Carole King, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Jefferson Airplane and Starship, Hair, Gypsy, Godspell, The Wiz and at all costs, Jesus Christ Superstar. The soundtracks of my mother's nefarious moods. I hop onto the bed and swiftly knock macram” Jesus from his nail. He slides down the wall behind the wicker headboard and onto the floor. Songbird darts under the bed after him. Without Jesus, my old bedroom walls are completely bare, but for filmy outlines of absent posters that I once adored as a teen. Rectangle-shaped fades on the floral wallpaper. I wonder where my Siouxsie and the Banshees “Kiss in the Dreamhouse” tour poster is” It better not have ended up in the trash. It's got to be a collectible now. Tiny terrier sneezes sound from under the bed. “If you—re chewing on that Jesus so help me,” I bang on the wall. How many days before my mother notices Jesus is gone” How long before we fight over it” Our first fight could be as little as four hours away. Barbara will pull into the driveway just as the sun is setting, gunning her Ford Fiesta a little faster than usual. My baby, she—ll call. You—re home. A minute later she—ll be pacing the house, chattering, I bought you fish sticks and canned tuna for your lunches. Do you still eat fish, right” Fish are vegetarian, right” You know where the towels are” Do you like the new sofa. I love Santa Fe d—cor. I—m thinking of returning these blinds. Wrong shade of pink. Is this your stuff in the hall” My god, so many suitcases. What do you have in there” It's taking up the whole entrance way. Okay, why don—t we bring all of this into your room? That's when it will happen. Bay, she—ll say gravely. How long have you been here” A few hours, tops, and you think you can just tear down my handicrafts? She—ll tap her size-nine foot and I will shrink a little each time the comfortable rubber sole meets the floor. You think you can just waltz right in and “ ?Get out from under there.” I dangle my head over the side of the bed and whistle. Songbird looks up with a dust bunny stuck to her nose. The macram” corpse crumpled against the baseboard. I had thought about being back in my old bedroom. Or at least I thought I thought about it when Barbara first suggested I come home. I thought: I lived here until I was eighteen, what's another year” I thought: small town quiet will do me good. Without great solitude no serious work is possible. Who said that” Picasso” Van Gogh” One of those post-impressionist dudes. I thought: there is literally nowhere else I could live rent-free. I thought: I—m making a reasonable choice. I didn—t imagine the furious thud of my body suddenly rolling onto my bedroom floor. Nor the sharp crane of my neck as I edge my head under the bed. I urge my eyes to swiftly adjust to the shadow, frantically scanning the wall just above the skirting board. Inches away from fallen Jesus I spot the first small squiggly “x” drawn on the wallpaper in Jiffy Marker. Half a dozen more “x's sprawl upward, some in black or blue permanent marker, others in faded number two pencil. For a moment, I want to yank my bed away from the wall to count how many “x's there are. Instead I press my forehead to the parquet floor. The dust itches my nostrils. The sugar from the canned peaches tingles a small cold sore inside my mouth. Impulsively, I bite down on it, hard, and tongue that first lick of blood. Why did I come back here” Songbird is still after something. The terrier butts her cold nose against my cheek a couple times, then resumes scratching at the corner of a flat, rectangular crate wrapped in plastic. ?What is it” What's under there, Songbird?” The crate must weigh more than a sack of potatoes. I yank at the heavy plastic packaging, stirring up more dust. Songbird sneezes again. She emerges filthy. I pat the terrier off before ripping into the plastic. “Auctions and Appraisals SOLD,” is stamped across the chipboard crate cover. What mysterious thing did my mother buy” She never buys mysterious things. The crate is as long as a coffin. I use my set of keys to pry the lid open. Inside is a painted wooden signboard of two fat cartoon sailors standing in comic fear. Their lips are perfect red Cheerios. Mayday, merry. Evil yellow eyes glare at them through thick indigo paint. “Are you afraid of the dark?” written in bubble letters floats above the sailors” heads. The auctioneer's paperwork reads, “Circa: 1960s Approximate Item Size in Inches: 92" Height, 49" Length, 1" Depth. Approximate item weight: 50Lbs. Condition: Good overall, colours. Used as a stunt in the Laugh in the Dark ride at Crystal Beach, Ontario, for many years. Sold for $90.? ?Look at that,” I marvel. “It's the ugliest thing I—ve ever seen. I love it so much it hurts my eyes.” I turn back to the now bare wall space above the bed. Just what this room needs'something new and appalling.

  Four: Weak [Etta's Voice]

Awake” Put me back in the dark nothing. I don—t wanna be woke again. Or do I” Or am I dreaming? What have I got to dream about anyway” A vineyard” Gypsy jazz” Chiffon stockings and Russian red lipstick” Saturday matinees at the picture house” Boardwalk strolls” Midnight boom in the ballroom” I could dance my way to heaven. Men's fat billfolds” Girl's French knickers” Eating hot nuts on the deck of a grand steamer ship” Fun house mirrors” Ferris wheel” Flying bobs” Roller coaster? Roller coaster. My scream could be heard all the way to heaven. Can the dead dream” Or only remember”

And what use are dreams or memories to me” I—m no master of either. I—m right confused—where, when, why, what, who and how now” And so very angry. And worse than confused and angry, I—m weak.

  Five: Bitch

?Down by the bay where the watermelons grow. Back to my home, I dare not go?? My bed rests in the exact same place it did when I was a child. Head in the west, toes in the east, and flush against a south-facing window. And in the same childlike way, I wriggle my feet from under the sheets and press my toes to the delicate aluminum mesh that separates me from the morning heat. My chipped glitter toenail polish twinkles in the sun. A collection of dead ladybugs lines the windowsill. One red shell sticks to a small tear in the screen window. She almost got out of here, I think. In Southern Ontario ladybugs infest houses in late October to hibernate in our basements or attics, and again in April when they wake up. The heat wave must have cooked them on the wrong side of the window before they made it back to the tall grass. I crush one under my big toe. Its beetle body pops like bubble wrap. Last night I left my worldly belongings packed inside their boxes and cases and instead turned my undivided attention to mounting the fun house stunt above my bed. It was a trick to be seen, with the electric drill clumsy in in one hand, while the other hand worked together with the top of my head or my knee or whatever body part I could employ to help hold the heavy stunt in place. The metallic taste of drywall screws still in my mouth. I neglected to even unpack my toothbrush last night. When hung, the stunt dominated the room with its hideousness. “You—re not very scary,” I told it. “You have an amateur disregard for physical proportion and your brushstrokes are muddy. You—re not a scary stunt.” I dozed off fast, then woke up routinely throughout the night. I thought I heard knocking. Once I rolled out of bed to make my way to the peephole, only to discover I that I had no longer had a peephole, or a door, or an apartment. No street lamps or headlights leached through the bedroom window. No cars zoomed up and down the street. It was so pitch black a man could have been standing in the corner of my bedroom and I wouldn—t have seen him. Once this thought was in my head, my mind spun with it. Then I lay awake trying to unspin. There's no man in here. There's no man. No man. Man. You—re imagining things. You—re hysterical. I know you are, but what am I” Pogonophobia is spelled P. O. G. O . . . Go back to sleep. Infinity. Now, at 8:27 in the morning, Barbara is awake in the next room, singing one from her repertoire. “?For if I do, my mother would say. Did you ever see a fox inside a box” Down by the bay.” Barbara is a Fauvist painting in her orange kaftan, standing in her tidy periwinkle blue kitchen. Yesterday's violet eye shadow flakes down her cheeks. Like me, she must have gone to bed without so much as washing her face. I am a pencil stroke of woman next to her, pale legs planted in a pair of deerskin slippers. She puts a mug of coffee in my hands, sings, “Down by the Bay. Bay. Bay. My baby. My Bailey baby girl,” she trills, then says, “I didn—t have the heart to wake you last night when I got home. I just watched you sleeping through the bedroom door, like I used to do.” And then—without a breath in between—says, “It was bad, when they tore the park apart. Auctioneers showed up to sell off the rides, everything. Some suits from across the border bought the old wooden roller coaster. Awful. Then they said it was too expensive to ship, so it sat there like a trash heap with “keep away signs” tacked all over it. Barbara gestures air finger quotes around “keep away signs” as if she is using the word disparagingly, but she's not, she means literal “keep away signs.” ?Then a fire that burned up the wreckage. They say the funhouse was burned to ash, the roller coaster too. Everybody says it was arson. Half the town came out to watch the blaze. There's still half-burnt crap all over the park grounds. Did you know that Tommy Tu is still a firefighter” He looks good for his late forties. I mean he looks really good. I almost asked him out on a date once.” ?Ma,” I bark. I need coffee before Barbara starts talking about men. “Are you telling me all this because you saw that I opened the auctioneer's crate?? ?I can—t believe I bought that old stunt,” Barbara muses. “You sure loved that ride. I used to have to hold you in the trolley car seat so you wouldn—t leap out onto the track. I—d say “look at the lion” or “there's a ghost!” You never cried like the other children. “How does it work, mama?” you wanted to know. “Who's making those ghosts dance?” You drove me nuts with your questions. You were always too smart for your own good.? ?Thanks, Ma.? ?So one day I took you to the park before they opened, remember that” And we had Ralphie Finberg give us a tour, remember him” Ralphie showed us around with the lights on so you could finally see the mechanics. Not every mother takes their kid on a backstage tour, like that. Remember?” I shake my head “no,” wishing I did remember. This amnesia is beginning to unnerve me. As if I—ve stepped into an imposter's life. I remember the ride, but not the ride operator. Just like I remember my old church, but not the priest. My high school, but not the names of the principal. ?Well, anyway, you weren—t all that impressed. Metal wires and duct tape on the ceiling and the floor. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” Barbara sighs. “Oz. I—m quoting The Wizard of Oz. If ever a wonderful wiz there was the Wizard of Oz is one because “? ?Ma!” I interrupt again. If she starts singing musicals we—ll be stuck in a soundtrack loop for hours. “So, you bought the stunt for me?” It makes sense that she wouldn—t buy something so impractical for herself. Costly knee-jerk emotional purchases are commonplace for me, but not for Barbara. I reach my pointer finger—just my pointer finger—out and cautiously hook it around her plump thumb. ?I don—t know what I was thinking,” she turns away from me to refill her coffee mug. I have spoiled her surprise. Stolen the moment where she—the good mother—presents me with a genuine artifact from my foggy, happy childhood memories. ?I love it,” I offer (the ugly thing). “I hung it over my bed last night.” (She already knows this. She's been in my room while I was sleeping.) ?That prop weighs a ton, Bailey. It's not meant to hang on the wall.? Why can—t she just say she got me a gift” Say something normal, like I—m glad you like it. “There's six drywall screws in it,” I tell her. Barbara snaps her lips at me. Each snap is surely meant to announce the argument she wants to have with me. ?You think I never learned how to put up a shelf or hang a picture in the time I lived alone?” Silence. Lip smack. Silence. ?You just said you bought it for me. Well, I hung it up where I can appreciate it.? “Every hole you make is one I—m going to have to fix later when I turn your bedroom into a den.? ?A den” What do you need a den for?? ?What” I can—t have a den” You think I only like books when I—m at work” ?Last week on the phone you said my room was always waiting. You never said anything about a fucking den.? ?Ooph, the bitch is back,” Barbara says, saccharine sweet. “Try not to be defensive, honey. Don—t bite the hand that feeds you.”

Six: Trash [Etta's voice]

What are they saying” Auctioneers. Trash heap. What fire” When fire” Figures my life was burned to ash. Why the hell have I been dragged back, then” Why must I know this new tragedy” Why must I feel” And darling girl threw her weight into that drill. That I felt—the frustration of her elbow grease, her sad sad exertion. I woke up as she drove the screws clean through. I woke up mute, and paralyzed, if I can be paralyzed without a breathing body. Bit by bit the scene came into being. First thing I noticed is she must be about my age, and pretty, even with that awful bobbed hairstyle. By the time was finished and settled in to sleep, I could manage to knock. What a cheat. I can—t be back here just for knocking. I ought to be able to dance and wail again. I ought to mention that I am dead. Dead, though not home and dry. If you ask me, heaven is hogwash. Least I haven—t seen any pearly gates. Laugh in the Dark. Now there's a place I sure have seen with my own two eyes. That ride was the mother of the amusement park. A mixed-up mother, part fun house, part haunted house, and part trolley ride. For fifty-three years she took in an assortment of very odd children: the stunts. She gave each stunt equal affection. Each had their three seconds, in which a dedicated light would buzz on as the trolley car approached, and each sprang up to frighten and delight squealing patrons. The first-born stunts where wartime cartoon characters: Maggie and Jiggs, Wimpy, Popeye shaking his bulbous Yankee fist?I yam what I yam. Hand painted on chipboard, like the stunt that now hangs on this young lady's wall. Stunts were proxy for our great generation by their colour palette alone. Hopeful and heroic colours. Fantasia blue. Casablanca yellow. During the 1950s, Laugh in the Dark prosperously adopted an arc's worth of animal stunts: the dragon, the lion, mules, dogs, cats, swamp rats, the crocodile, and several unidentifiable critters that did more than simply spring up. They roared. They growled. After the animals did it, every stunt had to make a racket of its own. Coffin lids creaked. Sirens rang. The skeletons danced to ragtime rhythm. The one true voice, the grandstand, was Laffing Sal, the papier mach” mechanique lady clown who cackled through her oversized set of gap-teeth at grown men and girl children alike. We all thought Sal would die laughing. Guffaw herself into oblivion. She went cold even before ride's last run. I remember now. She was a sign of the end. Like a stopped clock. I bet poor Sal never saw it coming. No, Laugh in the Dark kept her children, her stunts, innocent. She held them all in her great labyrinthine arms of wires and ropes and pulleys, letting go just long enough for them to perform their perpetual spectacle. It was not for them to know about war or bank crisis or moral panic. Without a clue or a care of the changes outside their black-painted walls, they shrieked and roared and sprang up and sprang up and sprang up. Is that what I am now” A stunt” I keep springing up from my dark hiding place. Again and again like someone's pulling my strings. Now if I say that Laugh in the Dark was the mother, then I likewise say The Cyclone coaster was the father. Vicious coaster. Cruel daddy. I ought to mention that I am dead. Not that anyone hears a word I say.

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