About the Author

André Babyn

André Babyn has an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto. His short fiction has appeared in Maisonneuve, the Fanzine, Hobart, Grain, and elsewhere. He lives in Toronto.

 

Books by this Author
Evie of the Deepthorn
Excerpt

When I told Jeff that Lauren had said I should do my media class documentary on Durham, he told me it was a good idea. We were in the kitchen after school. He was making a peanut butter sandwich and I was still raiding the cupboards, looking for something better, without much hope of finding it.
It’s weird, but some days it is difficult for me to remember Jeff ’s face or voice. I know what he looked like — there are pictures everywhere — and I know what his voice sounded like, but it’s one thing to know something and another thing entirely to have that thing available to you, easily accessible, which you take for granted until it’s gone.
But on this day, for whatever reason, it wasn’t hard. He was right there in front of me, like he had never gone.
“It’s not a good idea,” I said. “Durham sucks.”
Jeff agreed that Durham sucked, but he said there were lots of ways I could do it, anyway. For instance, I could just set up the camera on a tripod in the centre of town and leave it running for twenty minutes.
Last year the documentary only had to be a maximum of seven minutes (maximum! ) and Mrs. Scala (now on maternity leave) baked cookies for the final presentations. If I could remember now who told me that media would be a cakewalk, I would egg their house.
“That sounds like it would be horrible,” I said to Jeff.
He said that it would be “conceptual,” and that I would seem “deep.”
It was a good joke, but I knew that Wright would never buy it. He wanted something with a “traditional” narrative and at least four cuts. At least, he had said. Bare minimum. And music, too. (We were supposedly being tested on our editing skills, but I wondered if he had foreseen himself watching twenty twenty-minute documentaries of twenty intersections.)
I also had my potential audience to consider.
“I want my documentary to be good,” I said. “I mean, at least okay.”
“Why?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“That’s your problem,” said Jeff.
Jeff stopped getting decent grades after middle school, even though he was probably the smartest kid I’d ever known. Or at least it sometimes seemed that way to me. His effort cratered after that. Or maybe it had never been very high to begin with, and it was just that school was asking more from him. He claimed that he didn’t care. That it wasn’t worth putting in the effort to do well, to be liked, to not to stick out. That he was fine with the way things were. Sometimes I believed him.
I’d heard Mom whispering to her friends on the phone that she thought he had “emotional problems,” but I always thought he was just misunderstood. That he’d find his way in some other fashion, although not as radically as he hoped. It was too easy to say he had problems and to leave it at that. If he had a problem it was that he wanted to turn the world to do his bidding, to fold it in half in order to solve a geometry question that only required drawing a line from one point to another.
“Why don’t you start with what you know?” he told me. “Isn’t that what they always say? ’Start with what you know’?” He had a mouth full of peanut butter and Dempster’s soft whole wheat and some of it flew out and landed on the counter. He reached his hand out past me, toward the sink, letting it hang mid-air, and I interpreted his motion and threw him the rag hanging around the faucet.
The problem was that I didn’t know what I knew.
According to an article I read a while back in the Durham Enterprise, Durham is the fastest-growing small town within two hundred kilometres of the city of Toronto: “small town” being defined as containing less than twenty thousand people and “fastest-growing” determined via an aggregate score of year-to-year population growth, that population growth relative to the previous year’s population, and relative growth of infrastructure.
After I showed the article to Jeff and told him that we finally had something to be proud of, he laughed and said that their criteria basically meant nothing. It was just a way to get people who live in Durham to feel like they’re important. Which they’re not, he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Duh.”
But he looked at me like I was stupid and I knew then that I was, in a deep way, at my very core.
I was probably fourteen and I remember feeling that way all of the time.
It’s been two years since he died and I miss him a lot, enough that sometimes I pretend he’s with me, even to the point of making up conversations with him about what I have to do for school.
If Jeff were still around he probably wouldn’t be at home anymore; he’d be working at some crap job and living on his own somewhere far away, or he’d have figured his shit out and be doing some kind of mathematics or science degree at a university downtown. Or in another province, or country, or on another planet.
We were different in a lot of ways, but we had a lot of things in common, too. He wanted to get out of Durham by any means necessary.
So do I.

Here are some facts about Durham.
Durham, the municipality, counts about fifteen thousand residents. We have an arena, a hospital, three strip malls, a bus system, multiple hamburger places, two cemeteries, a newspaper, a Tim Hortons, a Pete’s Donuts, and a large chunk of real estate on Highway 89. We also have a single high school which is shared with all of the surrounding towns, including Saffronville, which is notable because students who live in Saffronville are often made fun of because it’s one of the few towns that is an even bigger hole than Durham. We take a lot of pride in saying so. (Saffronville: half an intersection; one decrepit grocery store; an off-brand donut place; three sneering teenagers on the main drag at all times, in basketball shirts without sleeves; scary dogs barking somewhere; an old man heavy in a torn white T-shirt lying on someone’s lawn, burping.)
In honour of our namesake, the late John George Lambton, first Earl of Durham, the high school is named Upper Canada Secondary School and the K–8 elementary school is Lower Canada Junior Middle School. Old Lord Durham was the one who drafted the report recommending the unification of the two Canadas (hardly rocket science) back in the heady days of BNA (British North America, for the uninitiated). The symbolism is idiotic. Not only because our great pride is in being accidentally named after a man who helped destroy French and Indigenous culture in the service of our British colonizers. The sports teams for both schools have the same name, the “Canadas,” which, if you’re following carefully, you know means that the full names of each team contains the semantically ridiculous repetition “Canada Canadas,” as in “Upper Canada Canadas.” No one actually says that, of course, because they’d sound like morons if they did (instead, they eliminate the first “Canada”), but it’s there, lurking underneath the scores on the morning announcements, cheers on Spirit Day, and the sentimental hoo-rahs in the Enterprise (“Bobby Booby, son of David and Liz Booby of Booby Auto, north Saffronville, scored the lone goal in the Canadas’ hard-working loss.”)
Barring some miracle, the only teams our teams will ever play are teams from Canada, and so in that light, “Canada Canadas” becomes even more meaningless, both humiliating and demoralizing at once. At least if we were the Badgers or something we could claim exclusivity until we met another team from podunk-nowhere with the same spirit animal: at least a badger is fearsome, at least there is some menace in that name. And what if, say, the Lower Canada Canadas did ever make it to a national tournament and ended up playing a team from Quebec? The Upper Canada Lower Canada Canadas vs. the legitimately Lower Canada Kanata Canadiens —?
The problem with doing a documentary on Durham is that teachers don’t usually like it when you’re too negative, even if you’re being realistic. I don’t know why. Maybe they get nervous about the world they are about to throw us into, and they’d like to keep us insulated from all of the shit we’re going to eat as soon as we get out.
But maybe it should be a documentary about how Durham is a hole and we are all trapped. Or about how I am going to get out of here somehow. Or about how if you live here for too long the hope in you dies and you become one of those walking corpses working at the Canadian Tire their entire lives. My cousin Peter told me last Thanksgiving that he saw an old friend of his there the last time he visited, and that when he said hello his friend looked right through him as he passed carrying a fresh shipment of lacrosse sticks. There are teenagers and there are capital-A Adults with serious jobs and in-laws and mortgages and everyone else is dead, dead.
Can I put that in a school project?
Let me do you a favour.
When you pass through the pines flanking Highway 89 on the approach to Durham you might feel light and cheerful driving in the sun, and when the town rises up in front of you, imagine that this is a place like any other, that we have lives here, that there is life, that in some haunted past or nostalgic future you might settle down in the sun and the grass and the asphalt and build a home and have children …
But please don’t be deceived — keep driving.

My best friend Walid told me that I should do the documentary on sex. I don’t know anything about sex — I mean, nothing first-hand — and he knows that. That’s the reason he suggested it as a topic. He is a dick. I said I wasn’t sure what that documentary would even be and he said, “Are you kidding?” and started thrusting his hips at a locker. “You could make it, like, a nature documentary.”
I told him to fuck off.
He said, “Okay, what if the documentary was about sex, but, like, actually in nature, with animals?” I thought that could be pretty funny. But I know even less about that than I do about human sex, which I only understand on account of all the human “nature documentaries” I have watched online. But, uh, that’s a topic I doubt that Wright would let me explore. And I’m not sure I’d want to, anyway.
I didn’t know what my documentary was going to be about, but I wanted it to be good. I wanted it to inspire the same kinds of feelings in others that my favourite movie, Evie of the Deepthorn, did in me. I wanted to make people feel like there was something urgent rising up out of them, something beyond themselves that was scary and insightful and beyond their control. I think it’s important for you to understand, too.

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