About the Author

Todd Babiak

Todd Babiak is an award-winning author, journalist and screenwriter. His second novel, The Garneau Block, was a #1 regional bestseller, a longlisted title for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the winner of the City of Edmonton Book Prize. His third novel, The Book of Stanley, is in development for television. Babiak is a columnist for the Edmonton Journal and on the board of PEN Canada. Visit his website at www.toddbabiak.com.

Books by this Author
Just Getting Started

Just Getting Started

Edmonton Public Library's First 100 Years, 1913-2013
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Son of France

Son of France

A Christopher Kruse novel
also available: eBook Paperback
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The Book of Stanley


The house on 77th Avenue was in a post-war subdivision three blocks from an industrial park. The park, a collection of manufacturing depots and warehouses, was bordered by car dealerships, gas stations, fast food outlets, a strip bar, and the most depressing Sheraton hotel in western Canada. From the subdivision — a collection of bungalows and semi-bungalows covered in stucco and vinyl siding — the industrial park was a constant, rumbling reminder of the blue-collar commerce that defined the city. On the uncommonly warm morning of Stanley’s visit to the palliative care specialist, Frieda was breaking the dirt in their backyard vegetable garden and cajoling him to sit on the patio and read newspaper articles aloud. One of his wife’s few superstitions: vigorous vocal exercise might just frighten cancer from the lungs.

Stanley wore his grey suit. There were others, but since he had lost weight Stanley felt insignificant and ghostly in them. It was an old suit, stitched and tailored more than two decades ago. On special days, Stanley wore it with a vest. He liked the idea of the woefully unfashionable three-piece suit, and saw it as a gentle act of rebellion in a world that no longer valued rituals and manners. Once rituals and manners were gone, at a vague date and time he associated with his own death, only blue-collar commerce and its accoutrements — snowmobiles, unnecessarily large trucks, ripped blue jeans, automatic weapons — would remain.

The story he read aloud was about Afghanistan. As he said words like Kandahar and Taliban, Stanley could not summon their meaning. It wasn’t just the names of Korean restaurants that he could not recall.

In recent weeks, whole chunks of Stanley’s memory had disappeared like dreams in the morning. One afternoon, he’d been looking at a black-white photograph of a man and a woman sitting on the shore of a lake in the Shuswaps; until Frieda commented on his parents’ youth, Stanley had assumed these were two strangers. Dead celebrities.

Since then, many of the most important events in his life had faded into shadow. The smell of barbecued meat, a show tune, a striped tie in his closet, or the bent spine of a book would inspire the fragment of a memory he knew was significant, even essential, but more and more often he couldn’t grab the whole of it.

And Frieda was beginning to suspect. She tried to trap him. At the end of the article about Afghanistan, she stood up from the hard soil, removed her gloves, and scratched at her grey-blond hair. “Remember that baseball game?” The morning of Stanley’s trip to the palliative care specialist, Frieda wore a turtleneck sweater, a jean jacket, a straw hat, and sweatpants with stripes on the side. She waved her gloves. “The night that boy from Lacombe went crazy and hit Charles on the head with the bat?”

On the patio, the newspaper rustling, Stanley remembered the summertime breeze in the Avonmore schoolyard, a warm breeze that slid in over the Rockies from the distant coast or farther, from the mysterious place where wind begins. It smelled of lilac and freshly cut grass, May trees, and leather. He remembered dogs barking in cheap apartment courtyards. Someone’s alcoholic husband playing country music out his window and yelling, “Shattap!” The chant of lawn mowers on 77th Avenue and the mosquitoes that always descended upon the diamond to collect the blood of parents. A symphony of crickets. Wheat trains piloted by lonesome and sleepy men, their horns wailing as they passed through Edmonton to cause traffic jams every hour. And crack — a hit, a single, clap, clap, clap. Was this what Frieda wanted to know? Did she want to know if he remembered parents smoking and taking nips from Pilsner cans in the late 1970s, only pretending to watch the game? Other parents, the parents who suffered their sons’ potential failures and successes before they fell asleep at night, screaming at their children, the umpire, and their saviour? The yellow and blue of the blanket Frieda wrapped around her shoulders when the sun threatened to dip beyond the houses on 81st Street?

“I remember.”

By the look of pinched disappointment on her face, Stanley knew that no one had hit Charles over the head with a bat. If Frieda asked what he had done in his flower shop for thirty-five years, what would he say?

Stanley glanced up at the sky, which was in the midst of transformation. Dark clouds eased in to colonize the light ones, and swirled gently. There was a crackling sound above them, distant thunder. In 1987, the great tornado had passed through the city just to the east of their house, and Stanley remained haunted by the monstrous deep green of the wind that had mopped the earth and killed twenty-seven people. Just beyond those clouds, as they’d torn up the land with the sound of a crashing jet, white-blue sky of the greeting-card variety. As he looked up, Stanley was reminded of that day in 1987. The dark clouds did not appear or sound ominous at first, only odd. He thought to call out to Frieda, “Look up!” But before he had a chance, the clouds swirled and a jolt went through Stanley. There was within him a pressure so great he thought his heart had stopped — or exploded. Now he desperately wanted to summon his wife, but as the desire reached his lips it became impossible.

The sound in the sky, conversing with the soil and clay of their backyard, progressed from a crackle to a rumble to a roar. It was the roar of the natural world, finally swallowing the city and its dull commerce. But it was also a voice. One voice magnified a thousand times. It did not seem to Stanley that he was hearing the voice, exactly. There was only pain, discomfort, the urge to communicate with his wife — all of it overwhelmed by an awful feeling of his own singularity. His fears and regrets and humiliations folded at once into a flash of abandonment. Everything he had learned about death was wrong. It was not easeful or romantic. There was no release in this, no connection or understanding. This thing, whatever it was, wanted to tear him apart. A pulse of blue light filled the yard and the land underneath the back deck quivered.

He gripped the arms of his chair and searched through the light and the sound for Frieda. But she was not with him, and neither was the deck or the chair or the garden or the house on 77th Avenue. It was over.

Then it was over. The blue light and the sound and the pressure and pain went as suddenly as they had come. His backyard three blocks from an industrial park returned to him. Stanley shivered with heat and lost control of his bowels. He looked down at the newspaper, which had remained on his lap, and felt a flock of geese flying overhead. Now, finally, his body obeyed him and he called out to his wife. Before she walked over to put her arm around him and ask if he was all right, Stanley knew she would put her arm around him and ask if he was all right. He knew the precise tone of her voice, the anxiety in it that she did not want him to hear. He heard bulbs and bugs quivering under the soil.

“Something just happened.” He looked around. “My heart. Or I might be going crazy.”

“Let me help you.”

“You’ll have to check me in somewhere soon. I don’t want you changing my diapers.”

“Let’s just see what the specialist has to say.” Frieda tried to guide him out of the chair and toward the door.

“What can he say?”

Just then, the intercom at the Ford dealership beeped its introduction. “Garry, line one. Garry, line one.”

“This is what we worked so hard for.” Frieda pointed toward the Ford dealership with one hand, and their small backyard with the other. “Retirement. This.”

Stanley was not yet in the mood to go inside. He dismissed the state of his underpants and regarded the majesty of their backyard in May. The budding branches of a sick fruit tree — what fruit? — leaning toward them like a beggar. The chain-link fence on one side of the lawn and the tall cedar hedge on the other. Peeling white paint on the 1951 stucco of their slumping garage. White and brown siding on their small semi-bungalow, crying out for a spring pressure-wash. All to the tune of their neighbour’s schnauzer, Ray Ray, barking at nothing, and a Harley-Davidson rumbling across the alley. “This,” he said, and wished Ray Ray would shut up for a minute. He wished the man across the alley would shut off his Harley-Davidson.

Ray Ray stopped barking. The motorcycle went quiet. Stanley heard the man across the alley slap the bike and cuss. He cussed again. A coincidence, Stanley thought, and then, for an instant, he thought otherwise.

“The fuck’s going on here?” said the man across the alley. “How does this thing work?”

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The Empress of Idaho

When she looked at me I saw what I had not seen. Our house was little more than a trailer. The blue vinyl siding was faded by the sun and carried years of dust. The front lawn was really a collection of weeds, but still it needed cutting.There was a filthy red chair with broken springs on our front porch. Weeks ago my mother had asked me to carry it to the corner so the garbage men could pick it up.
Now that the woman was looking at me I understood what Marv had said, that a man does not concern himself with gardening. I was too nervous and too ashamed to answer about the sweet williams. It did not matter because she had already turned and walked up his driveway. From a distance she seemed to float over the gravel. Marv raised his eyebrows and pointed in her direction with both his thumbs, took a step closer and whispered at me. He told me her name, Beatrice—like in poetry, he said. What poetry? It would come to him. Then: “Get this. We just got married.”
“You married her?”
“I goddamn married that woman.”
“Did you know her from somewhere before?”
“We met at O’Grady’s three nights ago.” He reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out his thick, oily leather wallet. “How you set up for cash? I’ll give you a five if you’ll help me unload her things.”
I hopped into the bed of the old truck and lifted the only heavy piece of furniture, a solid wood coffee table with a sticker on the leg that said "$9." Marv grabbed a garbage bag full of clothes. 
"How's your mom?" 
"She's good."
There was no sidewalk on Jefferson Street. We stood on the meeting place of weed and gravel. Marv looked at the front of our house. There was a constellation of wet spots where his breasts had pressed against his shirt. Now that Beatrice was not watching he let himself go crooked.
“I’ll cut the lawn.” The hard edges of the coffee table dug into my palms. “And get rid of that chair.”
“If you get a chance. A lady only gets one first impression.”
Inside, his house smelled of cigarette smoke and chemical peaches. An aerosol can of room deodorant, with an old English orchard on the front, had fallen over on the kitchen counter. The morning sun shone through Marv’s beige curtainsand turned his living room the colour of weak tea. It was tidier than usual.
“Where would you like the table, ma’am?”
She wore big gold rings and bracelets. She was thin like a boy and tanned. The garbage bag of clothes leaked. Marv struggled to contain it. Three panties and a sock fell on the green shag carpet and Marv laughed and cussed as he kneeled to pick them up. Then the bag tipped and a fur coat fell out.
I tried to right the bag. It was hot and melty. Beatrice bent and rushed me like a dainty ram. “Jesus Christ, child. That floor isn’t clean. Pick up that coat.” 
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Now Beatrice, a boy like this never seen one of those before.”
She turned to Marv and he took a step back. Then she brought the coat to her nose and inhaled deeply, closed her eyes. By the time she looked at me again she was smiling. “You are?”
“Adam, ma’am, from next door.”
“Charmed. Beatrice Cyr. Walker-Cyr, I suppose, right, Marv?”
“Damn right.”
“This is a Valentino, Adam. Sable, it’s called.” She enunciated as though I were either six years old or from Honduras. “You can touch it to your face.”
“No, that’s okay, ma’am.”
“Touch it to your face.”
I touched it to my face.
“Soft, isn’t it? Softer than a dream. This coat was ten thousand dollars once. Can you imagine?”
I tried to imagine how a woman with a ten-thousand-dollar coat had a nine-dollar coffee table. When would she wear something like this on Jefferson Street?
There wasn’t so much in the bed of the truck: three more garbage bags of clothes and linens, a suitcase, an old lamp whose dust had survived the trip, two boxes of jewellery, a stuffed bunny with one eye, and a set of books about real estate and sales.
When I was finished unloading I waited in the kitchen. I did not want to go into the living room because everything was quiet and I was worried they might be kissing. The wallpaper had drawings of horses and buggies on it. Marv had found it at an auction in Denver. I had helped paste it up and there were a few bubbles and lines from where I had been hasty. It had been a fun day with Marv. We listened to Led Zep and drank root beer. Whenever I smelled commercial glue I thought of us that day, buzzed on sugar and fumes. A cloud of fruit flies hovered over a bowl of bruised bananas. She had a few cassette tapes: Out of the Cellar by Ratt, W.A.S.P. by W.A.S.P., and Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn by Gustav Mahler. I peeked inside a faded Converse shoebox and I did not understand what was in it apart from a black leather mask and a silver chain. 
I put the broken lid back on the box. "Ma'am." 
"Are you snooping?" 
She took a step toward me and crossed her bare arms. They had visible muscles and tendons in them. I did not look into her eyes but I could not look at her arms or her chest or her legs either so I looked at the fruit flies and the bananas. 
Marv hobbled in. His shirt was undone and his cheeks were plummy.
"All done?"
"Yes sir." 
Beatrice turned and left us there in the kitchen. Marv watched her go and then he raised his eyebrows at me. "We meet at O'Grady's and next thing you know we got a suite at the Brown Palace." 
"In Denver?" 
"You bet." He fished around in his wallet, which was a wreckage of receipts and scratch tickets and credit cards. 
"But your house is right here." 
"Hotels are for romance, Adam." Marv peeked around the corner. "She's different from other ladies. This one's been all over the world. She's met industrialists, queens, the whole thing."
"What was she doing at O'Grady's?" 
"Tell your mom I'll be there tonight. With my bride." 
Marv did not have kids, and his first marriage had ended like my parents' had ended, with someone running. My dad ran. His wife ran. This is how I imagined the 1970s: people alone in convertibles with pink nylon scarves, crying goodbyes into the wind and driving to Los Angeles.

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The Garneau Block

1. The Coldest Morning in Recent Memory

Madison Weiss woke to the smell of scorched dust and nearly wept. Though she had lived in Edmonton her whole life, and knew well that with September came the first blast of the furnace, Madison felt the city — at least the five houses on her block — deserved a year off. Summer had ended poorly, by anyone’s estimation, and lying in her garage-sale bed, in the suite her father had built in the basement of 12 Garneau, Madison could see no romance in autumn.

The previous night, reading a new collection of nineteenth-century haikus, Madison had forgotten to close her curtain. Now the heatless sun splashed on the upper half of her bed, informing the engines of worry in her brain that a new day had begun. She would have preferred to construct a fort of darkness with her pillows, but she had to be at work in a few hours and the dizziness had arrived.

In the tiny half-bath, as she finished throwing up, Madison remembered:

First autumn morning
The mirror I stare into
Shows my father’s face.
And she threw up some more.

The secret to a comfortable pregnancy and an agreeable post-partum experience is regular exercise. Madison had learned this from Dr. Stevens, a former classmate at Old Scona. Of course, the fact that one of her teenage peers was a doctor, with an Audi and a husband and her own two-storey clinker-brick house overlooking the river valley, was reason enough to search the clinics of Edmonton for an aged gentleman with a British accent, loose jowls, and cold hands. But Madison trusted her doctor, Dr. Stevens, and by way of consolation she did have fat ankles and dry hair.

Madison put on her tights and shiny yellow running jacket. Now that the explosion of hormones in her body had begun its slow work on the size of her behind, Madison appreciated the utility of the rear flap that extended nearly to her knees. She ate a banana in the dimly lit kitchenette and watched a spider stitch its web outside the small window with a view of 10 Garneau’s mustard-coloured vinyl siding. Mid-banana, she wondered about her baby’s father, where he might be at this moment. Trois-Rivières? Prison?

At the door, Madison paused. The furnace had warned her that it would be the coldest morning in recent memory, so she took a moment to prepare herself. Madison closed her eyes and pretended it was February. In February a morning like this would be a miracle.

She stepped out into the September-February morning, breathed in the crisp air and hurried back inside. Television beckoned. Surely there was something on besides bland cartoons and that program where they talk about Jesus and ask for your credit card information.

Soon, Madison would be thirty. She knew, from literature and television shows, that this was no way for a thirty-year-old single mother to behave. So she burst out the door again and down the cobblestone path to the sidewalk. Madison did not linger next to 10 Garneau, with its grey flowerbeds and small jungles of dandelion and chickweed. Potato-chip bags and Styrofoam coffee cups had blown into the yard, and were now trapped under the apple and plum trees Benjamin Perlitz had planted. Benjamin Perlitz, once the most patient and committed gardener in the neighbourhood. A two-week-old strip of yellow police line, coated with dust, hung in the shrubbery. Madison glanced up at the second-floor window, into the darkness and silence of the room where he died, and turned away.

Leaves had already begun to change. Soon the North Saskatchewan River valley would be brilliant orange and yellow, and her morning jog would smell of decomposition and moist soil. The air was clean and the long shadows cast by neighbourhood trees were like old friends.

Madison turned to press against the mountain ash tree in front of her parents’ house for a calf stretch, and discovered a sheet of fresh white paper duct-taped to the bark. Since the night Benjamin Perlitz was shot and his wife and daughter disappeared into the secret grief of the city, Madison and her neighbours had become less likely to be surprised. But this was something. In all her years living under the regulatory shadow of the university, where it was strictly forbidden to affix advertisements, notices, and flyers on historically significant trees and lampposts, she had never seen such mutiny.

Laser-printed in capital letters, in a classic font: LET’S FIX IT.

Underneath, a date and time and the address for a downtown office tower. Madison knew instantly what Let’s Fix It referred to, and understood she was implicated in the “us” of the apostrophe s.

Across the street, the philosophy professor, Raymond Terletsky, ripped a sheet off the tree in front of his house, 11 Garneau.

“What is this?”

The professor crossed the street, waving the sheet like a flag. He was dressed unfortunately, in a turquoise sweater that didn’t quite cover the pink of his stomach. He was a tall man, with a slouch. His snug black pants, like all of his pants, displayed too much sock. Madison averted her eyes from Raymond Terletsky’s ensemble and saw that identical sheets of paper were duct-taped to every tree and lamppost on the Garneau Block.

“What is this?” said Raymond. “Is this new? Let’s Fix It?”

“They weren’t up last night when I came home from work.” Madison turned to study the sheets in silence with the professor.

He stood a little too close for her taste. The professor’s woody-fruity cologne was so powerful it threatened to give her a nosebleed. Raymond Terletsky smiled. “Someone is going to receive one hell of a fine for this.” He turned and raised his voice, though no one seemed to be about. “One hell of a fine.” Birdsong erupted, during which the professor waited for a response. Then he waved the sheet of white paper around with the back of his hand. “What does it mean, do you think?”
Pressing once more against the mountain ash, Madison released her left hand from the bark to point at the second-floor window of 10 Garneau.
“Well, obviously,” said Raymond. “But what does it mean?”

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A Man
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tagged : literary
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